Unions Set to Begin First Phase of Nationwide Strike

A coalition of 18 labor unions and associations is today set to begin the first phase of a nationwide labor strike in the garment sector by calling on workers in about 100 factories to boycott working overtime, according to union leaders.

Despite efforts by the government to stifle the strike, the union leaders, who claim to represent more than 300,000 workers in the garment sector, said they will continue distributing leaflets informing workers about the threatened strike in the middle of March.

“We expect that about 100 factories will join the strike tomorrow by not working overtime while we are in the process of distributing [leaflets],” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.

Mr. Thorn said that although local authorities have attempted to prevent the distribution of leaflets outside some factories, the message was still getting out.

“Although we have encountered some problems and been interrupted by authorities while distributing the leaflets, they have been successfully delivered,” he said. “Some [workers] already got our message through Facebook, the radio and other media.”

The last round of garment worker strikes, which began in December and included protest marches and demonstrations outside factories, were violently suppressed by state security forces in January. Military police shot dead five protesters on January 3, and 21 protesters are still being detained in a high-security prison in Kompong Cham province.

Union leaders said they aimed to finish distributing at least 200,000 leaflets to workers throughout the country by Tuesday. Last week, the unions were delayed after they struggled to find a printing house willing to print the leaflets.

The demands outlined in the unions’ petition include the release of the 21 prisoners, a $160 minimum wage for garment workers, the prosecution of state forces who killed the five strikers, and an end to the government’s ban on demonstrations.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), was quoted in local media on Friday as saying that the strike planned for next month could lead to 80 percent of factories in the country shutting down or moving abroad.

“If labor union groups still lead protests to demand $160 per month for workers…80 percent of the factories would be closed, while some would move to other countries,” Mr. Sou Ieng was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Herald website.

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo declined to comment on Mr. Sou Ieng’s prediction, but said that the March strike, during which workers are being told to stay at home, will be a test of their commitment to taking part in collective action to raise the minimum wage.

“[Unions] claim that all workers aren’t happy and support them in their call for higher minimum wage. Our claim is that majority of workers are happy with what they have now,” Mr. Loo said.

“So staying home will be a true test. It would really allow everyone to see clearly what the majority of workers want,” he added. “On one hand, we are worried, but on the other hand it is a good test to see whose claims are more truthful.”

Ouk Sok Maly, 43, a garment worker from Svay Rieng province, said during her lunch break outside Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park on Sunday that workers are desperate for higher salaries to keep up with rising inflation.

“We can strike for three months without going to work because we cannot live with this situation since the price of commodities and house rental is rising fast,” Ms. Sok Maly said.

“Although the authorities intimidate and threaten us, they cannot come and shoot us in our homes,” she added.

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy and Colin Meyn)

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