Trade unions on Sunday threw their support behind the two main parties for this month’s national election, with both sides claiming to have the allegiance of the majority of workers in Cambodia’s manufacturing sector.
As the Free Trade Union (FTU)—the country’s oldest union—officially declared its support for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a massive procession of about 500 trucks and 2,000 motorcycles carried throngs of workers through the streets of Phnom Penh in a pro-Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) rally.
Sam Aun, president of the Cambodian Labor Union Federation, said that the more than 15,000 workers who took part in the rally were only a fraction of the support his endorsement of the ruling party would deliver at the polls.
“The CPP have led the country well, created stability and peaceful development. The workers have jobs at the moment at factories, which is an achievement of the CPP,” Mr. Aun said, claiming that his coalition of 64 unions made up 83 percent of the 640,000 people estimated to be working in garment, footwear and related industries in Cambodia.
During the rally, which traveled from Koh Pich in Phnom Penh to Chom Chao commune in Pur Senchey district, several workers said they were being paid 20,000 riel, or $5 to participate, a claim Mr. Aun denied.
“There is no offer of 20,000 riel in cash for each worker, but we have offered food and 15,000 riel [$3.75] for gasoline for those who travel on their motorcycles. Those on the trucks will not get money,” he said, explaining that the union was covering food costs and the CPP in Phnom Penh was stumping up for transport costs.
The CNRP has promised to raise the minimum wage to $150 per month if it is elected, arguing that wiping out corruption and cutting taxes on gasoline would keep Cambodia a competitive destination for garment manufacturers.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the apparent mass support for the CPP on Sunday should not be taken at face value, particularly since those attending the demonstration were allegedly paid to show up.
“For the people who go to the CPP [events], they go to get the money, the cap and the lunchbox, then they come back to the CNRP to donate that money to us,” he said. “Sometimes we see the image, but it doesn’t mean that in their heart they support the CPP.”
As the mass rally made its way through the capital, the FTU, which claims to have 100,000 members, held a vote among 74 representatives from 32 factories to decide which party their union would back at the election.
“We see that a majority of them support the CNRP, so our union decided to vote for the CNRP because the CNRP has promised to increase our payment to $150 if they win the election,” said FTU president Chea Mony. “The workers want to increase their pay since they work very hard and they get very little payment. Five hundred thousand workers will vote for [the] CNRP party because it promises to increase their wages.”
David Welsh, country director of the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, said that while CPP-aligned unions do have a large proportion of members among workers, people may not vote how their union tells them.
“It’s a real mistake for the ruling party to assume that [aligned union] leaders represent the interests of their members,” Mr. Welsh said. “The independent, democratic unions really generate the most motivated support.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Simon Lewis)
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