Garment workers voted Sunday to defy city officials and march Tuesday, International Labor Day, in support of higher wages and a shorter work week.
And if labor officials don’t set a date for a key meeting by next week, union officials say workers might strike.
Phnom Penh officials last week refused to let the workers march, saying saying workers are allowed to demonstrate only from 7 am to 8:30 am in the park next to Wat Botum. Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said that is not enough.
“It is the right of workers in every country of the world” to march in support of peaceful goals, he said. Union officials said they have arranged for 50 trucks to transport 5,000 workers from “at least” 30 garment and shoe factories to Tuesday’s march.
Chea Vichea said workers will march to the National Assembly, the ministries of Justice and Commerce, and the Council of Ministers.
The union’s request for a permit to march was denied for security reasons, said Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Chev Kimheng. Two years ago, about 1,000 workers defied a similar city ban to march in a May Day demonstration. Although there were reports of police resistance, the march ended peacefully. Last year, the city granted permission for a May Day march and an estimated 10,000 workers demonstrated, again without problems. But that march was followed in June by a week of sometimes violent strikes that union officials claimed shut down 65 garment factories.
Officials have made it clear they do not want a repeat of last year’s unrest. Cambodia’s labor relations have remained relatively calm since the Labor Advisory Committee approved a $5 per month increase in the minimum wage last July.
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said last week he opposes any demonstration on May Day, saying it could hurt Cambodia’s economy at a time when the global economy is slowing.
“Garment factories in Cambodia will have less business and workers will be out of a job if unions continue to lead demonstrations,” he said Thursday.
European or US buyers will be less likely to sign contracts with Cambodian companies if they fear labor unrest will disrupt production, he said. “The unions are making buyers afraid to buy our products.”
The Free Trade Union had originally announced an industry-wide strike for next week, with demonstrations on the May Day holiday followed by work stoppages Wednesday through Saturday.
Union officials backed off that plan last week after they were told the Labor Advisory Committee had agreed to discuss the union’s demand to reduce the work week from 48 hours to 44, giving workers Saturday afternoons off. Sunday, however, union members were upset that the advisory committee still had not set a meeting. If a date is not set before Wednesday, they said, workers might walk off the job.
But one Western adviser well- versed in labor issues said a strike on the scale of last year’s is unlikely. Even though workers would like a shorter work week, he said, “they don’t want it the way they wanted the pay raise.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)