On 1st Day, Garment Strike Gains Little Traction

Two unions that called for a stay-at-home strike by garment factory employees Wednesday had little success in mobilizing workers after six other unions, under pressure from the government and factory owners, pulled out of the planned industrial action on Tuesday.

Union leaders who pushed ahead with the industrial action said that their members in 14 factories joined the strike, though some were back to work by the end of the day for fear that they would lose their jobs.

Workers at one factory confirmed that they had staged a successful walkout Wednesday.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) reported that none of its more than 400 factories were affected by the strikes, which unions initially said would involve hundreds of thousands of garment workers across the country.

“There was some [industrial action] but those were isolated cases not related to the so-called strike,” said Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC.

Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said that local unions in 14 garment factories heeded the call to strike.

“Some workers went [to the factory] but they did not work while others stayed at home and didn’t go to work at all,” she said, claiming a figure of some 10,000 workers joining the strike.

The garment sector employs about 500,000 workers, mostly young women, who now receive a minimum wage of $100 per month.

Ms. Sophorn said that, despite the lower than expected participation, her union, along with the National Trade Unions Coalition, would press ahead with the strike calling for a $160 monthly wage.

“We will continue to strike although there are only a few unions [participating],” she said. “We will continue to strike from the 12th until 15th to demand the government to release the 21 [jailed protest prisoners] and increase our workers’ salaries and drop all complaints against our unions.”

Cheang Thida, a union organizer at the Kin Tai garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, said that about 600 workers walked out of the factory after punching in Wednesday.

“After we had explained to the workers about our demands and told them we have to sacrifice our time and effort, all workers were happy to join with us,” Ms. Thida said, adding that they agreed to continue the stay-at-home strike until March 17.

Union leaders at other factories who planned to join the strikes said they were less successful.

Sim Sotha, a union leader at the Terratex Knitting & Garment factory in Meanchey district, said that she and four other workers planned to start the strike by turning off the lights in the factory, but were thwarted by management.

“The Chinese managers and administrative officials questioned us after we tried to turn the lights off and wanted to leave the factory to go to our homes,” she said.

“Workers could only strike for half an hour since they were afraid of losing their jobs, because they have a short-term contract with the factory,” she added.

Khorn Heanh, 33, a worker at the Shimano (Cambodia) garment factory in Kompong Speu province, said that workers lost enthusiasm for the strike after administrative staff and security guards began patrolling the factory and taking photographs of employees who were not working.

“[Workers] wanted to strike but the factory’s security guards walked up and down taking photographs with cameras. After a half hour, [workers] felt threatened that their salary would be cut” and got back to work, Ms. Heanh said.

Management at the Kin Tai, Terratex and Shimano factories could not be contacted Wednesday.

The six unions who backed out of this round of strikes have pledged to coordinate a nationwide strike after the Khmer New Year holiday, which begins on April 14.

Following an earlier round of minimum wage strikes and demonstrations in late December and early January, which were violently suppressed by troops and military police, who shot dead five workers and injured at least 40 others, 23 protesters were imprisoned in a maximum security prison in rural Kompong Cham. Two have since been released on bail.

About 150 factory owners filed legal complaints against the leaders of the six unions behind those strike protests.

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a zero-tolerance policy for unions that strike without following legal procedures.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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