Garment workers who marched through the city Sunday will spend the holiday today getting ready for a possible strike, according to union leaders.
“[Today], we start to prepare a strike for every facility,’’ said Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
“We are afraid that the factories will fire the workers, but we will do it anyway,’’ he said. “Because if not, we will be afraid every day. And we cannot achieve anything.’’
He said whether the plans proceed to a widespread action will depend on the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting of the Labor Advisory Committee, which is slated to discuss the workers’ demand for an increase in the minimum wage.
On Sunday, protesting garment workers chanted “70, 70, 70” through loudspeakers in reference to their demand for an increase in salary from $40 per month. Workers also want a cut in the workweek from 48 hours to 44; eight more holidays and a number of other provisions, including no forced overtime.
Garment employers have repeatedly said they cannot afford to pay Cambodian workers more, or they will lose their competitive edge with other Asian countries.
More than 5,000 workers demonstrated over the May Day holiday weekend, staging a one-day strike when they refused to return to work after the holiday. Sunday’s demonstration was much smaller, as about 700 workers gathered in the early morning at Wat Praput near the O’Russei Market.
The workers had planned to assemble at Olympic Stadium, but were denied permission late Friday by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport because of two conflicting events at the
stadium: a Queen’s birthday footrace and a badminton tournament organized by Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
Union organizers blamed the low turnout on confusion over where to meet. People weren’t sure where to go, said Chea Vichea, and some went home when they couldn’t find their friends.
He said organizers had permission from the city to march and decided to proceed despite the confusion.
Demonstrators marched east on Sihanouk Boulevard to Independence Monument and then north on Norodom Boulevard, stopping for speeches at the headquarters of the Garment Manufacturers Association as well as the ministries of Social Affairs and Commerce.
The initially festive crowd of mostly young and female workers grew somber when the march turned onto Norodom Boulevard and dozens of helmeted police officers carrying nightsticks blocked the cross-streets to the east.
Police apparently wanted to ensure that demonstrators stay out of the streets surrounding the Royal Palace, which had been blocked off to traffic over the weekend.
The marchers, however, insisted that they were not frightened, either by the police or by the possibility of losing their jobs.
“We are not scared at all,’’ said Teang Tina, 22, who works at the Mitonah Garment Factory near Pochentong Airport. “The garment manufacturers have threatened us so much, we no longer get scared.’’
She said she can barely meet her expenses for food and housing on what she earns, and if anything goes wrong—if she is sick for a single day—she has no money at all.
“If there are no solutions,’’ she said, “we will keep demonstrating forever.’’
Roger Tan, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association, said the textile owners “are counting on the government to talk some sense into them.
“Whether the unions choose to believe us or not, that is their business. It is difficult to face reality, I know, but that is the reality.’’