More than 400 garment workers gathered in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district Sunday morning to express their concerns directly to National Assembly lawmakers from the CPP, Funcinpec and the SRP.
Held in front of a factory in Kambol commune, the meeting was part of a series of “constituency dialogues” between lawmakers and citizens being organized largely by the US-based National Democratic Institute. The ruling CPP was represented by Kandal lawmaker Ho Naun; Funcinpec by Kandal lawmaker Khieu San; and the SRP by Phnom Penh lawmaker Ho Vann.
Sunday’s dialogue represented a rare opportunity for workers in Cambodia’s premier industry to interact directly with legislators from all three parties holding seats in the Assembly.
It also provided an opportunity to look deeper into the policies and campaigning styles of each of the three parties, whose representatives had to respond directly to concerns from a crowd, rather than deliver a pre-scripted speech.
Not that the issues and desires raised by workers Sunday could not be predicted: A significant raise in the minimum wage, increased job security and more vacation days were foremost among the gripes presented to the lawmakers. Lawmakers were also confronted with a complaint from the predominately female assembly about a lack of time and designated areas for them to nurse their children.
Khieu San initially entered the foray by casting blame for the workers’ payment and contract issues on the factory owners, claiming: “Some factories do not give workers some wages.”
But what began as a populist swipe at garment industry chiefs quickly spiraled into a lengthy and muddled tale of GDP growth and becoming developed like Thailand. Khieu San then took up a harsh attack on an unnamed political party for supposedly spurring garment workers to strike.
“One party has always provoked workers to go on demonstrations,” he said, in a nearly transparent reference to the SRP. “Now the workers are not stupid, they have asked for a raise directly from employers.”
Ho Vann and Ho Naun both came across in more focused messages that clung closely to their respective roles as representatives for the SRP and CPP.
Ho Vann told the crowd that he and the SRP shared workers, concerns regarding the minimum wage and securing workers an adequate pension, saying that that the minimum wage should be raised by $30 to $80 per month.
“We all have the same concerns,” he said. “I want the government to help demand a raise for the workers.”
Ho Vann also criticized the government over the implementation of laws governing workplace standards—including the already-legally required breast-feeding areas—saying that many of the laws in place are good, but are inadequately enforced.
Ho Naun had probably the toughest challenge of any of the speakers, addressing a garment worker audience given the SRP’s strength in the union movement. But he managed to build up the strongest rapport with the crowd, besting Ho Vann, who kept on message but lacked the specifics and crowd-pleasing rhetoric that Ho Naun was able to call forth.
Warmly calling the assembled workers “children,” Ho Naun insisted that the government—particularly Prime Minister Hun Sen—was actively working in their interest. To this end she stressed the $5 raise in the monthly minimum wage for garment workers that the government set down in late 2006.
She also said that the government was focusing on inflation.
“[The price of] gasoline is a universal problem. But do not be disappointed, because we have oil,” she said. “Your concerns are the concerns of the government and the National Assembly.”
Ho Naun also encouraged workers to look beyond day-to-day money issues towards the bigger picture of the garment industry in Cambodia, telling them that a large wage increase right now could result in the flight of business to other countries.
In the end, the crowd expressed high hopes that the candidates would follow through on pledges to take their complaints to the government, but doubt remained that any real progress would come in the short term.
As garment worker Khat Sokkheang, 26, put it: “I don’t think workers can get $80.”