International Brands Seek Probe Into Protest Killings

Thirty international union federations and global brands, including Walt Disney, Wal-Mart and Gap, wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday expressing “grave concern” over the fatal shooting of five garment workers this month and calling for an immediate investigation into the killings, as well as a meeting with the premier.

In a joint letter addressed directly to Mr. Hun Sen, they also urged the government to “respect the rights” of the 23 union leaders, garment workers and protesters arrested earlier this month during protests demanding a higher minimum wage in the country’s garment sector.

Several days of nationwide strikes by garment workers came to a violent end when military police shot into crowds of stone-throwing protesters outside a Phnom Penh factory on January 3, killing five and wounding more than 40.

“The use of deadly force against protesting workers will not result in long-term industrial peace and jeopardizes Cambodia’s position as a stable sourcing location for international brands,” the unions and brands said in their letter to Mr. Hun Sen.

The letter also backed a call from the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, for a prompt investigation of the killings.

“The investigation should ensure full accountability of any members of security forces found to have used disproportionate and excessive force and to take measures to prevent the repetition of such acts,” they added.

They also called on the government to respect freedom of association, which the Interior Ministry indefinitely suspended a day after the protest killings, and to immediately resume negotiations with the local unions and garment workers to settle their dispute.

“The global garment industry is changing rapidly and industrial peace is required to rebuild our confidence in the Cambodian garment industry,” the letter says. “We respectfully request that Samdech [Mr. Hun Sen] meet with senior representatives of the undersigned in the week of 3 February 2014 to discuss how we can help you achieve the above-mentioned goals.”

Representatives for the prime minister could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Friday’s letter follows one sent by six trade associations—whose members account for 90 percent of the garments and footwear imported by Canada and the U.S.–on Wednesday.

That letter called on not only Mr. Hun Sen, but also the unions behind the strikes and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), to cease all violence, return to the negotiating table and set up a permanent wage-review scheme as soon as possible.

In a statement put out Sunday, the opposition CNRP, which has backed the $160 per month minimum wage demands of the unions behind the strikes, thanked the brands for speaking out.

“Resolutions can only be found when workers and employers can negotiate in good faith, not in an environment that permits the use of violence, intimidation and a corrupt judicial system that punishes union leaders standing up for justice,” the CNRP said.

And while the international unions and brands do not mention the $160 monthly minimum wage the local unions are demanding, their letters will put pressure on the government and factories to agree, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, one of the groups behind the wage strikes.

“We’re optimistic that the letter from the buyers this time can force the employers to implement our demands because they [the brands] know that those businessmen can raise the wage to $160,” he said.

The unions are threatening to resume nationwide strikes if the government does not restart wage negotiations soon.

Mr. Hun Sen put Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon in charge of a new committee to study the possibility of raising the garment sector’s minimum wage above the $100 presently on offer on January 10, but no news of the committee has emerged since.

The same day, Mr. Hun Sen put Interior Minister Sar Kheng in charge of a “study” of the clashes between protesters and police that ended in the fatal shootings. No news of that study has emerged, either.

Addressing the labor disputes in a speech last week, however, Mr. Hun Sen said the unions’ demand for an immediate bump in the minimum wage to $160 was out of the question. The government and factories argue that immediately doubling the minimum wage would send many of the brands now buying from Cambodian factories in search of cheaper labor costs elsewhere.

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo said Sunday that Friday’s letter from the international unions and brands was essentially in line with those of local factories.

“We have always condemned the use of violence in any industrial dispute…so there’s no contradiction there,” he said.

Mr. Loo also welcomed their call for “punitive measures” against anyone guilty of damaging property during the protests, an apparent reference to some of the protesters.

“So this is a letter that at least tries to be more fair,” he said.

As for their request that the right to freedom of association be respected, citing the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 87, Mr. Loo said the strikers had forgone that right by turning violent.

“Clearly the strike and demonstration was not peaceful…so clearly the ILO Convention of 87 cannot apply,” he said.

In their Friday letter, the unions and brands also say that a trade union law for Cambodia was long overdue. Mr. Loo said GMAC has been calling for just such a law for years.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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