More than 10,000 garment factory workers joined opposition CNRP protests Wednesday in Phnom Penh, while tens of thousands more went on strike at factories across the country, following the government’s decision on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage to $95, a figure that fell well short of workers’ demands.
Leaders of the country’s independent and opposition-aligned unions said that workers at more than 120 garment factories in five provinces were on strike over the government’s decision to raise the minimum wage by just $15, falling $65 short of their demand for a $160 monthly wage.
Despite warnings from the Ministry of Labor to refrain from protesting its decision, union leaders issued a statement on Tuesday claiming that 300,000 of their members would go on strike, and said that they are organizing a nationwide demonstration calling for a more significant wage increase.
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha delivered a speech to protesting workers in Kompong Cham City on Wednesday morning, blocking traffic for about an hour at the base of the Kizuna Bridge that spans the Mekong River.
Morn Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, said that members of the union were striking at 37 factories in Phnom Penh, Prey Veng and Kompong Cham provinces. Oum Visal, a legal officer at the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said that workers were striking at 16 factories in Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu and Kandal provinces. Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said that the union’s members were striking at 64 factories in Phnom Penh, Kompong Chhnang, Kandal, Kompong Cham and Kompong Speu provinces.
“I have received information from my representatives that thousands of workers erupted into strikes at their factories and some marched to Freedom Park after the Ministry of Labor announced the wage raise,” Mr. Mony said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that workers had not voluntarily gone on strike, but were forced out of the factories by agitators.
“These are not strikes,” Mr. Loo said of the widespread industrial action called by union officials.
“The information we have gotten from the factories is that in the morning, workers came to work as usual. In fact, operations of factories’ work was disrupted by people outside destroying property and kicking down gates and literally chasing workers out of the factory and not allowing them to work,” Mr. Loo claimed.
“We are calling on the government to protect the workers, as well as the interests of employers.”
At Freedom Park Wednesday morning, striking workers began to trickle in from their factories on the city’s outskirts, joining a few hundred CNRP supporters who have remained camped out at the park over the past two weeks. The factory workers then arrived in droves in the afternoon, prior to the arrival of opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.
Groups of workers marched to the park from about 40 factories across the city and were greeted by cheers from the growing—and giddy—crowd as a CNRP band and various singers provided entertainment.
Mr. Rainsy walked with a few hundred workers from CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district to Freedom Park, where he met Mr. Sokha at 3 p.m. and delivered a brief speech.
“I would like to extend my appreciation to all of you for demanding $160. Your demands are right,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Mr. Rainsy tied the workers protests over wages in the garment sector to the CNRP’s own demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which have now gone on for 11 consecutive days.
“All the workers in the country are demonstrating with the workers in Phnom Penh. So, Hun Sen must direct the owners of the companies and factories to provide a salary to the workers at least $160. Otherwise, Hun Sen must stand down,” he said.
Throughout the afternoon, the crowd intermittently took part in call-and-response chants exhorting Mr. Hun Sen to resign.
Shortly before 4 p.m., the garment workers, led by Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha, left the park for a march on National Road 6A.
Returning from the two-hour march to Prek Liep commune and back, Mr. Rainsy said that the CNRP will gather 1 million supporters for a demonstration on Sunday.
“On the 29th, we are calling on all workers, farmers and all people——at least 1 million—to come together. We cannot prevent this huge turnout,” he said.
“He [Mr. Hun Sen] has to be careful. This tsunami could push him to the middle of the ocean and drown him,” Mr. Rainsy said.
CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua said Wednesday that leaders of the opposition would fan out to factories in Phnom Penh and the provinces tomorrow to rally more support among garment workers.
“We want to be able to let them know what is happening outside [the factories]…and if possible bring them to Freedom Park and we will have a major, major rally on Sunday,” she said.
Since the government’s plan to raise the minimum wage by $15 next year, and $80 over the next five years, was announced on Tuesday, the Ministry of Labor has issued two statements warning workers not to protest the government’s decision.
“At this time, the Ministry of Labor would like to appeal to workers, employers [and related organizations]…to avoid any activity that could be a trap in a political trick of some opportunists, and that could damage your benefits and the interest of the nation,” the Labor Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The staggered five-year minimum wage increase was approved by the Labor Advisory Council (LAC), which is composed of representatives from the government, factory owners and labor unions. Of the seven union leaders on the council, five are aligned with Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, while two maintain political independence.
Three CPP-aligned unions, including the Cambodian National Confederation of Laborers Protections (CNCLP), issued their own statements Wednesday celebrating their collaboration with the government in raising wages by $15.
“[The CNCLP] would like to fully support and express pride in the hard work of the LAC and the government, which have worked hard to increase the additional wage to the employees, which is considered one part of poverty alleviation,” the union said.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)