Several thousand workers marched down Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay on Wednesday, demanding higher wages, stronger protection of their rights and reform of the country’s judiciary in what was the largest gathering of Cambodia’s labor unions in almost three years.
Along with thousands of garment factory workers who had the day off and were trucked in for the city center rally, Wednesday’s parade marking international Labor Day was joined by members of unions representing teachers, construction workers, public servants and sex workers, along with a strong contingent of motorcycle taxi and tuk-tuk drivers.
The 4,000 or so people who joined the march met no resistance from police, who lined the route from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to the National Assembly. Speaking over loudspeakers strapped to trucks and tuk-tuks, union leaders called for a general monthly minimum wage of $150 and a monthly wage for civil servants of $250.
The marchers also demanded that the courts release Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men widely believed to have been framed for the murder of union leader Chea Vichea in 2004, and called for the imprisonment of Chhouk Bundith, the former governor of Bavet City who is accused of shooting three garment factory workers during a protest in February 2012.
As the march crossed the heavily policed intersection of Sisowath Quay and Sihanouk Boulevard, union representatives called over loudspeakers for police to smile if they also wanted a higher salary.
Watching the crowd pass by, municipal police officer Ly Vart said that police are in no position to join such protests. “I think police can’t rally like the workers because we’re under the control of the government,” he said.
As the marchers passed by construction sites along the riverside, day laborers in the buildings took a break to wave at the passing crowd, who cheered them on in a show of solidarity.
Ros Deus, a domestic worker and member of the Independent Democratic of Informal Economic Association, said that he receives none of the rights taken for granted by many workers who joined the march.
“I haven’t had a holiday for two years,” he said, adding that he makes about $60 a month, $20 below the new minimum wage of $80 for garment factory workers, which came into effect Wednesday.
Once the march reached the National Assembly, workers were met by members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), including the party’s vice president, Kem Sokha.
Standing on a truck bed, Mr. Sokha promised the gathered workers that the CNRP would integrate their demands into their party policy to be implemented if they are voted into power in the July 28 elections. “We will eliminate the corruption that exists in our garment sector and distribute that money to raise your salary,” he said.
One group not in attendance at the rally were members of unions aligned with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, who make up the vast majority of the country’s more than 500,000 garment factory workers.
Sam Aun, the leader of one such group, the Cambodia Labor Union Federation, made an appearance on the Cambodia News Channel on Tuesday evening to tell his members to stay away from the Labor Day march.
“The rally doesn’t solve anything, it’s just a topic for the opposition party to rally around in order to find more votes,” Mr. Aun said Wednesday. “If unions demand too much, it’s a problem. We can’t do $150 [general minimum wage] right now,” he said.
In a speech to about 1,300 workers at the Preah Sihanouk Autonomous Port on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that workers should relax on Labor Day and enjoy their day off rather than protesting.
“This is their right to protest,” he said. “But if we look at all of the workers, most of them are enjoying parties rather than participating in this march.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)