Thousands of garment workers rallied at Olympic Stadium Monday before pouring into the streets for a massive demonstration that wound to a peaceful conclusion about noon at the National Assembly.
The rally, commemorating International Labor Day, was a festive and exuberant affair, with young workers and their supporters chanting and cheering as they marched through the city.
Onlookers seemed to enjoy the sight of so many young people with a common purpose. “This is very good,” said middle-aged motorcycle taxi driver Khao Oun, pausing to watch as the horde surged up the steps of the Independence Monument.
Union organizers estimated the crowd at 10,000, but it was difficult to tell the workers from the thousands of onlookers who shouted support as the demonstrators passed.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, took a different view. “We all know what Labor Day is,’’ he said in an address broadcast over Apsara Radio. “It is not the day to organize a demonstration.’’
Actually, historically speaking, it is. And protesters made that point in Asia Monday, as an estimated 1.7 million flocked to more than 1,000 rallies in Japan and 100 disgruntled workers smashed rice bowls—traditional symbol of workers’ livelihood—in Hong Kong.
Hun Sen said instead of being confrontational, workers and employers should work together to resolve disputes and to turn Labor Day into a joint celebration. He agreed with the Cambodian demonstrators, however, that the labor code must be respected.
He also said that Phnom Penh residents were getting tired of demonstrations, because they tie up traffic and make it difficult for people to get out of the city to enjoy a holiday.
Last year, when workers were refused permission to march on May Day, they did so in defiance of the government. But this year’s event was sanctioned and moved smoothly, with police controlling traffic and no violence reported.
As recently as February, garment workers were injured in several demonstrations by police wielding electric cattle prods. Human rights organizations decried the violence, while clothing manufacturers complained the disruptions were bad for business.
The atmosphere Monday was more celebratory than confrontational. The marchers hoisted huge banners urging a series of reforms, from better working conditions to lower gas prices.
Workers were transported to the rally in 40 trucks, from more than 10 factories in and around Phnom Penh. According to union organizers, they are seeking an increase in the monthly minimum wage from $40 to $70 and a work week reduced from 48 to 44 hours.
Workers also advocated a stop to “arbitrary and wrongful dismissals’’ of union activists, the creation of an independent labor court and the enforcement of the labor code.
The march paused for speeches outside the offices of the European Community, where speakers urged European businessmen to pressure Cambodian employers to respect workers’ rights.
At the Ministry of Justice, speakers said a more apt name would be the Ministry of Injustice. “It never finds justice for us at all,’’ said one speaker, but always sides with the factory owners.
Demonstrators demanded the immediate creation of a labor court. “We need an independent court because thousands of our complaints are never brought to trial,’’ said one speaker. Corrupt court officials “take bribes from the factory owners instead of a trial.’’
At the National Assembly, workers were exhorted not to give up. “If we do not win today, we will try to win tomorrow and later on,’’ said a speaker. “We must struggle, because we cannot live with injustice.’’
Workers said they plan to continue demonstrations today and Wednesday.
(Reporting by Phann Ana, Saing Soenthrith, Ham Samnang and Jody McPhillips)