Along Phnom Penh’s industry-heavy Veng Sreng Street on Wednesday, garment factories lay idle in observance of Khmer New Year. The dorms around them were empty, save for the few workers who could not afford the bus ticket home for the holiday, which ended Wednesday.
Eight unions planning a nationwide stay-at-home strike, scheduled to start today, are hoping it stays that way.
They have been spreading the word for the past several weeks about the strike, which has been called to demand a higher minimum wage in the garment sector as well as the release of 21 protesters imprisoned during the last round of strikes in January.
On Wednesday, union leaders were hopeful that as many as half the country’s roughly 600,000 garment workers will be taking up the call and staying home in protest.
“We expect more than 50 percent of the workers not to come to work until April 22 to demand that the government and Ministry of Labor release the 21 prisoners and give them a $160 [monthly minimum] wage,” said Far Saly, president of the National Trade Union Coalition. “We have informed our workers, handed out 100,000 leaflets and spread the information through social media and word-of-mouth.”
“We will wait and see how many factories will be open or closed,” he said.
Liv Tharin, who heads the Independent Democratic Youth Trade Union, was hopeful that about half the country’s garment workers would be staying home today.
“If the government does not want to lose any revenue, it should not turn a blind eye and it should release the [imprisoned] workers and increase their salaries,” he said.
Garments make up the bulk of the country’s exports and generated more than $5 billion in revenue last year. The last round of strikes in late December and early January forced dozens of factories to shut down temporarily and cost the industry $42.2 million in lost production, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC).
The last strike came to an abrupt end on January 3 when military police shot into crowds of protesting garment workers in Phnom Penh, killing five and injuring more than 40. Twenty-three unionists and garment workers, including the 21 still in prison, were charged with inciting violence and property damage in relation to the protests and are scheduled to go on trial next week.
This time around, the unions are asking workers to simply stay at home, hoping both to avoid a repeat of the violence and to take advantage of the Khmer New Year holiday.
However, Van Porphin, a member of GMAC’s executive committee and the regional general manager of three factories in the country, expects the strikes to have little impact. She said many factories already give their workers extra days off after the New Year.
“I don’t think they will have any strike because we give a long holiday, until the 21st,” she said, adding that her factories have given employees extra days off for Khmer New Year for the past seven years. “So if they have an impact, it will only be for a minority [of factories].”
GMAC has been arguing that the unions’ plans do not actually amount to a strike because the Labor Law says a strike can happen only when workers withhold their labor while at the factory. The association says anyone who stays away after the New Year without permission will simply be taking an unexcused leave of absence and could face pay cuts, lost monthly bonuses or even termination.
Along the dorms on Veng Sreng Street, the few workers there said that they did not know anything about the unions’ call for a strike.
Roeun, who gave only her first name for fear of retaliation from her bosses, said her factory, Bright Sky, was giving all its workers off until Monday, but said they had to make it up by working the next two Sundays.
“They said they won’t cut our salaries, but we have to work extra days to pay them back,” she said.
Sun Konthea said the Sin Chew factory was giving her no such option. She said the bosses were calling everyone back by Friday, and she intended to be there.
“We have to go back on the 18th, otherwise they will fire us.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)