Garment Workers See Renewed Appeal in Strike

The day military police armed with AK-47s shot dead five striking garment workers on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Street last month, Keo Pheaktra, then two months pregnant, lay flat on the floor of her small rented room for hours to avoid the flying bullets.

The workers had been protesting a decision to increase their basic wage from $80 to $100 a month, saying it would still not provide enough to live on. They had been demanding $160, but scared by the killings, they returned to the factories to make clothes.

“They were successful,” Ms. Pheaktra, 28, said Sunday in front of her building, which still bears bullet holes. “They killed one to scare off 100 more. No one is happy now. We’re afraid.”

Unions say they intend to hold a second nationwide strike in March, but doubts remain over whether they can overcome workers’ fears and convince them to match the numbers of last month’s unrehearsed mass uprising.

Ms. Pheaktra, however, who is now four months pregnant, said that for many workers, fear is starting to give way to financial desperation.

“It’s worse than before. We haven’t even received our first salary of $100 yet, but prices have already increased in advance,” she said. “First my room was $15 per month, then I earned $60 and it went up. Then I earned $80 and it went up to $20. Now it’s going up again.”

The basic wage rises to $100 this month. The prices of electricity, water, rice and pork, which Ms. Pheaktra buys every day, have already increased by up to 20 percent, she said. She is also set to begin paying $25 per month for her small 3-by-3 meter room.

“Some people are still afraid of the killing, and we see that no one takes responsibility for the people killed and imprisoned, but we want to demonstrate again,” she said.

Further down Veng Sreng Street, Dom Neth, 29, said that the increase in the salary was “useless” and now impossible to live on.

“The owner told me that when I get the $100, the rent will go up $4 to $5,” she said, noting that pork prices had already risen from $4 to $5 per kilogram. “Pork, beef, vegetables, fish—it’s all gone up,” she said. “Before, we could cook a pot of stew for 5,000 riel [about $1.25]. Now, we can cook half a pot of flavorless stew for that much.”

“What salary increase? This is worse than before.”

Yi Chakrya, 26, sat in her room with an IV drip feeding serum into her arm to fight against chronic diarrhea. She has come to consider the use of the serum, which was not allowed in her factory, to be a privilege to be enjoyed on her Sunday off.

“I’ve been a garment worker for 10 years, and all I have is this serum to show for it,” she said. “I’m going to join the demonstration. I’m not afraid of being killed. It would only be the same as this.

“How will we survive like this? We will only get sick and die anyway,” she added. “If my leaders are strong, I will follow them. With $160, and if prices don’t rise, we won’t be rich, but it will be easier.”

Cheat Sethikar, 35, who said he now works as a supervisor at a shoe factory, blamed the predicament on an abrupt shift in taxation policy from the government late last year.

Import tariffs, which had long existed but were rarely enforced in lieu of informal payments, began to be enforced in November. Vendors have since complained of price rises of up to 30 percent. Annual inflation was 4.7 percent last year compared to 2.5 percent in 2012, according to figures from the National Bank of Cambodia.

“The government can fix this. They can ensure the taxes on goods are low, and then they can keep the prices low. If the prices stay like this, we need at least $130 a month to live,” Mr. Sethikar said.

Unions will begin distributing leaflets outside factories on Tuesday, Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union, confirmed Sunday. The leaflets will outline details of the strike and their demands, which include the release of 21 people jailed during last month’s strike and the $160 basic wage.

Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the government’s ban on public assembly would prevent any such lobbying from taking place before the planned March strike.

“They can print leaflets and distribute them in their own property but they will not be allowed to do so in a public place,” he said, declining to elaborate on the response union officials would meet if they defied the ban.

For Ms. Pheaktra, the pregnant garment worker, however, joining any renewed strike or public protest would be the only option to help her earn enough money to raise her coming child.

“As a worker, you come here from the provinces, and you see everyone living well-off in the city, with their children getting a good education, and you start saving with some hope,” she said.

“But for me, at best, I might be able to just keep my child in school,” she said.

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