Unions Blast Rainsy Over Remarks on EU Garment Trade

Pro-government unions have threatened mass protests against the opposition CNRP after party leader Sam Rainsy called on the E.U. to increase pressure on the Cambodian government by targeting the country’s economy.

In a video posted to his Facebook page last week, Mr. Rainsy can be seen delivering a speech during a hearing on Cambodia at the European Parliament in Brussels, where he calls on members of parliament to “show Mr. Hun Sen, the prime minister, that you are serious” about improving the human rights situation in Cambodia.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy speaks during a press conference in 2013. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy speaks during a press conference in 2013. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

To do so, he suggests taking aim at the garment industry, which currently enjoys duty-free access to E.U. markets under the Everything But Arms trade initiative for developing countries. Garments are by far Cambodia’s largest export industry and the E.U. is the sector’s largest market, buying more than $2 billion in duty-free garments and footwear from Cambodia last year.

“If you make them understand that this market is not open all the time without conditions, they may start thinking about it,” he said.

In response to his remarks, four pro-government labor confederations released similarly worded statements on Monday accusing Mr. Rainsy of trying to torpedo the Cambodian economy.

“We condemn the politician for destroying the nation and destroying our jobs in the garment sector,” said one of the statements, signed by the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions, which says it represents 310,000 workers.

“If we have no jobs, we will demand that opposition politicians respond, and will hold demonstrations and march to the party’s office and embassies involved to demand our jobs back,” it continued.

In an interview on Tuesday, the president of the confederation, Chuon Momthol, reiterated the threat of a mass demonstration in the event of any move by the E.U. to eliminate trade preferences, which he said could lead to the closure of hundreds of  factories.

“If it happens, we are going to demonstrate,” he said. “I have never seen a person like Sam Rainsy; he wants the position of prime minister by defeating the ruling party and destroying the nation.”

Asked on Tuesday to clarify what action he was proposing the E.U. take, Mr. Rainsy said he was seeking “the same sanctions as those implemented…to put pressure on the authoritarian regimes of Burma and South Africa decades ago.”

“It is the highest-ranking and the most corrupt Cambodian leaders who have been benefiting most from the opening of a huge export market in Europe for garments made in Cambodia,” he added.

“The big factory owners will be hurt in their profits, a portion of which is transferred as kickbacks to Cambodia’s corrupt leaders, but it can hardly be worse for the already heavily exploited ordinary factory workers.”

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