When Cambodian Labor Confederation President Ath Thon stood in front of the cameras on Sept 16 and announced the end of a week-long series of strikes that saw tens of thousands of workers walk off the job, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the union had just won a hard-fought victory.
Not only had the CLC successfully coordinated one of the largest nationwide industrial actions ever seen–while the union and employers gave wildly different estimates of how many workers took part, both put the figure in at least the tens of thousands–the government had just stepped in to set up negotiations on improving worker benefits.
Almost two months have passed, however, without any sign of negotiations. Even worse for the unions, factories have suspended or fired hundreds of workers and union representatives involved in the strikes and have pursued legal complaints against many individual union representatives.
With CLC representatives saying they will mount another campaign this month if there is no resolution, further strikes are looking increasingly likely.
“My life has become harder [since the strikes] because I don’t have a job and just stay at home,” said Hang Srey Lak, who worked at the Winner garment factory in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district until the strikes. “My leaders told me to be hopeful because they are helping me.”
Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia Secretary-General Ken Loo said yesterday that the suspensions, dismissals and lack of progress in negotiations were all the result of the decision to go on strike.
“We always said we were willing to negotiate, just please wait until after October,” he said.
He said he believed the union’s decision to press ahead with the strikes had in fact delayed negotiations and made some factories less willing, and able, to offer improved benefits.
“Some factories…will be less open [to negotiations] and less able, because they have suffered losses that were absolutely not necessary,” he said.
The CLC’s Mr Thon said he believed the offer to negotiate was just a delaying tactic.
“If we didn’t go on strike, if workers didn’t make their demands, the government and the companies would not give more to the workers,” he said.
He said GMAC were employing a “strategy” of blaming the unions in an attempt to delay negotiations.
David Welsh, country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said that, despite the fact that benefit negotiations have not yet begun, it would be wrong to say the strikes had failed.
Mr Welsh said he believed the September strikes had been successful in calling attention to the fact that garment workers do not earn a decent living wage.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a report yesterday evaluating the legality of the strikes. The report concluded that the unions had essentially followed the law and that the response from GMAC was disproportionate and unjustified.
“In view of the fact that in most…respects the strike was compliant, a conclusion that the strike as a whole was lawful…would be a reasonable finding,” the report read.
Mr Loo rejected those claims yesterday.
“The courts are the only authority that can determine the legality of the strikes. That’s why we have to go to the courts,” he said.
Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical officer at the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories program, called on both sides to look to the future of the industry rather than apportion blame.
“In my opinion, a practical solution to the current issues will not be found in the law books, but will hopefully be found in the acceptance, of both parties, that it is time to move on,” he said.