Prime Minister Hun Sen will start hosting weekly meetings with garment workers across the country later this month in what some see as a calculated political move to shore up support among a key demographic ahead of next year’s national election.
The Council of Ministers announced the initiative on Friday as a valuable opportunity for the premier and the country’s 700,000 garment workers to understand each other better. It said the meetings would start on August 20 at Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island and move around to different factories in the weeks that follow.
Council spokesman Phay Siphan said on Sunday that the meetings were both a chance for workers to raise concerns the government could use to formulate policy and for Mr. Hun Sen to speak directly to them.
“[H]e always provides updates on politics and on the country, as he has done with students or communities,” he said. “This is the goal: to demonstrate the closeness.”
Mr. Siphan said the meetings would take place every Sunday so far as the prime minister’s schedule allowed. He did not know which factories Mr. Hun Sen would be visiting first or how many weeks they would run for.
The garment sector has played a key role in the country’s economic growth over the past two decades, accounting for the vast majority of its export earnings. Yet political analysts also see it as a potential political liability for the ruling CPP.
Garment workers eager for higher wages featured prominently in the opposition CNRP’s rallies both before and after the bitterly disputed 2013 national election, which the CPP won only narrowly. A public poll commissioned by the CPP last year, leaked to the media in June, also found workers were the least likely to vote for the ruling party compared with farmers and business owners; the poll did not differentiate among types of workers.
Mr. Siphan on Sunday insisted the CPP had no intention of using the weekly meetings to win votes in the coming election, set for July 29.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor rights NGO Central, said the meetings could be a boon for workers, but only if they were given the chance to provide the prime minister with unfiltered feedback.
“It is a good thing that the top leader goes to meet with people or workers,” he said. “But the question is whether he is open to giving workers the chance to actually tell him what they are facing or whether it is just a meeting where they are not free to tell the truth.”
If it turned out to be the latter, he added, “I think the meetings will be fruitless.”
Either way, Mr. Tola said the meetings were clearly a bid for votes.
“I see that this is the start of seeking votes because, first, the NEC [National Election Committee] will start registering voters in the next few days,” he said. “Second, it is very close to election day and, third, we saw that the Cambodian People’s Party in 2013 lost more than 20 [National Assembly] seats. This is an alarm for the party, too.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the largest independent union in the country, and a man who often clashes with the government over garment industry practices, said the meetings were an ideal opportunity for the CPP to mix policy with politics.
“It is true it is for the politicians, because during elections the politicians always try to find ways to provide services to workers to get their support,” he said. “First, it can be said it is the duty of the government to work on this. Second, at the same time, he asks for support when he visits. It is normal.”
The meetings also come amid ongoing negotiations between the government, factories and unions over a new minimum wage for the garment sector. A new wage is likely to be announced in October or November and will take effect next year.