Six Unions Suspend ‘Stay At Home’ Garment Strike

The majority of garment factory unions organizing a nationwide stay-at-home strike among their members, which was set to begin today, decided to delay their plans until next month following a meeting among union leaders Tuesday.

Only two out of the planned eight labor unions will push ahead with the strike to demand a $160 minimum monthly wage, while six others have decided to delay the industrial action until after the Khmer New Year holiday, which begins on April 14. Eight labor associations who were also supporting the strike action were also split on whether they would stay at home Wednesday.

The unions that have decided to hold off on the strike include the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the country’s largest independent union, and the influential, opposition-aligned Free Trade Union.

Ath Thorn, president of CCAWDU, admitted that if he were to go ahead with the strike, few of his members would actually join.

“We are following our members’ request and if we continue to hold the strike, few workers would participate,” Mr. Thorn said, adding that CCAWDU would instead ask workers to stay home for one week following the Khmer New Year.

“After the Khmer New Year workers will stay at home and will not come to work until [April] 23,” he said.

“We want to give a chance to the government to negotiate and solve the problems with factories, and now the buyers are in negotiations with the government,” Mr. Thorn said.

However, Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, and Far Saly, president of the National Trade Unions Coalition, said they would go ahead with the strike as planned.

“There is no reason to delay the strike,” said Ms. Sophorn, adding that she “regretted” that six other unions had decided to delay.

“We had meetings with [our workers] and they all agreed with our plan,” she added.

Ms. Sophorn said that some of her members would remain at home today, others will gather in front of factories to deliver brief speeches in support of the strike, while others will enter their factories but refuse to work.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents more than 400 garment and footwear factories, said he was not concerned by the threatened strike.

“I was looking forward to a stay-at-home strike because…it would allow us to see clearly how many workers supported this call,” Mr. Loo said.

“I would also presume the reason [union leaders] did this is because they realize they are losing support, fewer workers are supporting their demands,” he said.

The apparent split among the unions comes amidst intense pressure from GMAC and the government to prevent a strike.

Over the past week, the government has taken a hard line against the unions’ threat to strike, with Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 4 announcing a zero-tolerance policy for “illegal” union activities, followed by a decision by the Ministry of Labor to require union leaders to show a clean criminal record before registering new branches.

Less than 500 workers turned out to a planned union forum on Saturday after City Hall and the Interior Ministry said they would not allow it to go ahead. Union leaders initially estimated that 30,000 workers would attend.

Over the past month, Mr. Hun Sen and government-aligned unions have also launched a counteroffensive to the strikes, lobbying workers to refrain from taking part in the collective action, which Mr. Hun Sen predicted during a speech on February 25 would destroy the industry and put garment workers out of a job.

The last time unions went on strike in late December, tens of thousands of workers joined demonstrations led by the opposition CNRP calling for Mr. Hun Sen to resign as prime minister.

On January 3, military police opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles against a group of protesting garment workers, some throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, on Veng Sreng Street, killing five workers and injuring at least 40 others. At another peaceful protest outside the Yakjin Garment factory on January 2, soldiers from the elite 911-paratrooper unit broke up demonstrators by beating them with metal poles and clubs.

At least 150 factory owners have filed legal complaints against the union leaders who organized the strikes and demonstrations, which temporarily shut down hundreds of factories.

A total of 23 protesters remained imprisoned in the high-security Correctional Center 3 in Kompong Cham province following the suppression of demonstrations on January 2 and 3. Two have been released on bail, while the other 21 have twice been denied bail and remain in prison awaiting their trial on charges of inciting violence and property damage.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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