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From Cambodia’s prisons, workers’ voices are still being heard

by Jeff Vogt

From Cambodia's prisons, workers' voices are still being heard

 

In Cambodia, 23 workers have been jailed. Their demands were far from criminal: a liveable minimum wage.

Earlier this week, trade unions from around the world rallied in front of Cambodian embassies for the release of the jailed workers and for a liveable minimum wage.

In Cambodia, the minimum wage is now US$100 per month. According to a government-backed study, a wage of between US$157-177 is minimum required to allow people to meet their minimum monthly needs.

Yet, making the minimum wage a living wage is not the priority of Cambodian authorities.

Between 2-3 January 2014, heavily armed police, military and paid thugs resorted to violence and intimidation to quash peaceful strikes and demonstrations for an adequate minimum wage of up to US$160.

23 people were arrested, including Vorn Pao, President of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association and Theng Savoeun, Coordinator of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Communities as well as workers from those associations.

Pao was seriously injured by police during his arrest, and now requires urgent medical treatment.

At least four workers were killed by the police and 39 injured.

The International Trade Union Confederation undertook a high-level mission to Cambodia in January to call for the release of the jailed workers, an independent investigation into the January violence, and for the government to negotiate with the garment unions and set a new minimum wage as soon as possible.

There is no question that the multi-billion dollar industry can afford to pay more.

In Cambodia, the garment sector is a US$5bn annual export industry.

Two of the 23 prisoners were released on bail on 7 February. This is long overdue, but 21 prisoners remain in jail, despite the international mobilisation and a hunger strike by some of the jailed workers.

An appeal is pending, while a trial date will soon be set. If convicted, the workers could face several years in prison.

The government has now refused to register new unions and has essentially banned public assembly.

It has recently applied the ban to arrest workers and other activists calling for the release of the jailed workers.

At the same time, garment manufactures have threatened to sue unions for damages they allege they caused during the strike, though no union called for or condoned violence.

Like the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh last year, the Cambodian protests reveal the true cost behind the garment industry profits.

 

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