As Cambodia’s garment industry balloons, factory owners draw on a seemingly limitless pool of labor to fill their orders: young, healthy, poor, and largely uneducated workers who have few prospects for a better job.
Each day, they flood by the thousands into scores of factories where they perform repetitive tasks for hours. Most are paid the legal minimum of $40 a month.
For factory owners, they have been a steady and reliable labor source, enabling factories to generate profits as Cambodian-made clothes are shipped to the US and Europe for retail sale.
As the industry has expanded, the work force has matured into unified groups demanding better pay and better conditions. They back up their demands with threats of strikes, and their measures are often effective, bringing work to a stop until management agrees to negotiate.
Now, union leaders say, a disturbing pattern is emerging in factories as owners try to keep the unions in check: Workers who take leadership positions and speak out against labor violations are soon fired.
Union organizers say several workers who became leaders in their factories’ unions have lost their jobs in recent months. Arbitrary dismissals is one of the complaints workers plan to air at a protest scheduled for today, international Labor Day, which at least one thousand workers are expected to attend in the capital.
Factory managers say the employees were dismissed for violating company rules, mostly showing up late for work. But workers say the underlying cause for the dismissals is clear.
“The reason to fire a union activist is to frighten all Cambodia workers,” said Men Kim Leng, an employee at Luen Thai garment factory, where the union president allegedly was suspended over his involvement in a motorbike accident.
The firing of union leaders has led to several strikes in recent months. Most recently, workers at the Luen Thai factory marched to the US Embassy April 24, demanding that their union’s president, Eam Youlong, be reinstated. Management at the Hong-Kong based Luen Thai met Thursday with union leaders.
Luen Thai insists that it is working hard to solve problems brought up by the workers, but says that union members have also prevented willing workers from entering factories in the past, a factory statement said.
“We respect the sentiments of our workers and we are open to employees’ feedback,” factory president Henry Tan said in a faxed statement to The Cambodia Daily.
“Any concern that is raised by the workers is taken into consideration by the management by holding meetings with them to get a better appreciation of their needs,” the statement reads.
Employees at the Hong-Kong owned Golden Jet garment factory had planned to strike last Tuesday, but shelved the plans when factory management agreed to reinstate seven union leaders who were fired in April.
“Now workers are clever. If an owner illegally fires one worker in a factory, they will strike,” said Khiev Savuth, bureau chief of labor conflict for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.
“Their working conditions [are] getting better because they always strike when the owner does not respect their rights and the labor law.”
Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, suggested that incidents of workers being fired be viewed as specific to a few factories and not an industry-wide problem.
He said the factory management and the unions have good relationships and are working to understand each other’s positions.
“We are not here to challenge the unions or abuse the workers.”
The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest. In 1995, there were 20 garment factories. Today there are more than 180, employing 90,000 people, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
It is also the country’s most lucrative industry. Ninety percent of Cambodia’s exports come from garment factories. Last year the total export volume topped $600 million, almost tripling from three years earlier. A small percentage goes into national coffers.
Most of the clothing produced in Cambodia is sent to the US, which has uniquely tied its quotas to labor conditions—the better the conditions, the more garments the US will allow.
Whether because the industry is rapidly growing or because workers are learning to be more vocal, complaints against factories are rising sharply. Collective disputes and demonstrations rose from 44 in 1998 to 120 in 1999, according to the Labor Ministry.
“Some union members are very active and make a lot of protests against their owners,” said Khiev Savuth.
“This is a reason for the firing, but the owner does not use the union membership as a pretext to fire the worker,” he said. “They try to make up something. They watch to see if they will make a mistake. If [they] do something wrong, they would soon be fired.”
Nget Sary didn’t make a mistake—but he lost his job just the same.
He says he lost his job because of his union activities.
When he started working at the Golden Jet Garment factory in 1998, he did not join the union. “I wanted to work only,” he said.
“But then I saw the owner illegally forcing workers to work overtime without pay and firing workers without reason,” he said. “I urged the owner to reconsider. That’s why the workers support me. That’s why I joined the union.”
Last October, Nget Sary said, he was voted to head the union at Golden Jet. He said the factory management then transferred union leaders to different jobs to keep them away from each other.
The union was formally registered on March 24, 2000. Just more than a week later, the union’s leadership was told there was not enough work for them at the factory and they were dismissed from their jobs, according to Katja Hemmerich, spokeswoman for the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which represents about 8,000 garment workers.
Hemmerich said the union leaders were the only Golden Jet workers dismissed.
The workers were soon rehired at half their salaries, but were not given any work to do.
Employees at Golden Jet planned to strike last Tuesday but a deal was reached and the seven workers are again being given their full $40 salaries, Hemmerich said. But they are still not working.
Golden Jet management could not be reached for comment.