A few garment factories resumed operations in Phnom Penh on Friday, albeit at reduced capacity, as thousands of workers returned to the city after Khmer New Year celebrations in the provinces.
While the majority of factories in Meanchey and Pur Senchey districts stayed closed, it remained unclear if that was a result of a successful labor strike, as unions have argued, or an extended new year holiday, as factory owners claim.
Eight labor unions called for a weeklong stay-at-home strike in the garment industry, beginning Thursday, to demand a $160 minimum wage and the release of 21 activists and garment workers jailed during the last round of protests in January.
However, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) says that factories have agreed to extend the holiday vacation until next week, in what unions claim is an attempt to undermine their strike.
The majority of workers spoken to Friday said that their factories announced a compulsory extended holiday before Khmer New Year, a move that Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said is meant to prevent the perception of a major industrial dispute in the embattled industry.
“I can’t believe that the factories and GMAC gave the workers more holidays as a gesture,” Ms. Sophorn said. “The factories are working for the buyers and the buyers are waiting for their goods. This extended holiday is just an excuse. Any worker that isn’t at work [Friday] is on strike.”
But Kaing Monika, GMAC’s business development manager, said that it was the unions who were manipulating the facts.
“It is absolutely not a strike,” he said. “We understand…it is Cambodian tradition and culture to continue the holiday a few days more, particularly [with] this year’s good timing—with Thursday and Friday to follow [the official holiday],” he said.
Mr. Monika said that the majority of garment workers had made agreements with factories to use accrued annual leave to extend holidays, or agreed to work on future public holidays to make up for their absences.
Article 170 of the Labor Law states that all employees have the right to 18 days paid leave per year, but only after one year of service. Mr. Monika said that in this instance, factories were willing to relax this rule.
“Factories do not strictly allow for annual leave after one year of service. They would allow 1.5 days per month. If workers have worked just two months, they can have 3 days’ annual leave already, which is enough for the holiday extension,” Mr. Monika said.
The majority of garment workers interviewed Friday were not planning on returning to work until Monday.
GMAC has argued that the true test of the strength of the strike, which is supposed to last until Wednesday, will come next week when factories reopen for business.
Chhom Srey Oun, a 29-year-old factory worker who had just arrived back in Pur Senchey district from Kompong Thom province, said she had no reason to believe that the extra time off came with strings attached.
Ms. Srey Oun also said she had no interest in repeating nationwide strikes and protests in late December and early January, which ended abruptly when military police shot dead five protesters on Veng Sreng Street. “We had extra days of holiday because it is the Khmer New Year and the managers said we should enjoy the time with our family,” she said.
“We don’t know about any strike. The only strike we know is the one before [in January], and we don’t want anything like that again.”