There is an arc that stretches over the past 10 years and connects, in blood, the fight for a living minimum wage for Cambodia’s 600,000 garment workers.
At one end is the 2004 assassination of Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea, who had been pushing for an increased minimum wage, but was shot dead in broad daylight by a helmeted gunman on Thursday 22 January, 2004, as he bought a newspaper in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
A decade later, on Friday 3 January 2014, five people were shot dead in Phnom Penh by military police officers during a second day of garment strikes for a US$60 increase to the US$100 minimum wage on a dusty stretch of road that is home to garment workers and the factories in which they make big-brand clothes.
In these protests, 23 unionists and workers were rounded up and summarily incarcerated in a remote prison bordering Vietnam awaiting trial on charges that included incitement, aggravated intentional violence and the destruction of public property. Two were bailed.
After five months, during which the rest of the men languished in prison, the trials began.
Outside the barricaded court, supporters held signs that read: “The world is watching,” while others scuffled with police.
On Friday 30 May, all 23 were found guilty, but released from prison on suspended sentences.
Of these, the president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), Vorn Pao, has become a symbol of the minimum-wage movement—something he remains committed to despite ill health, compounded by being beaten during his arrest, and a suspended sentence hanging over his head.
“Although labor activists and protesting workers have faced a lot of violence, we will exhaust all efforts to demand better pay, since the brands have made a lot of profit on the back of the extremely hard work by people earning a poor wage,” Pao said in an interview with Equal Times.
For months, activists and the men’s friends and families made multiple calls for their release, rallying before the Royal Palace, Ministry of Justice and the municipal, appeal and supreme courts.
The men’s arrests also cast an international spotlight on the plight of garment workers in Cambodia, who are responsible for making clothes for some of the world’s most recognisable brands, such as Gap, Levi’s and H&M.
Pao said he felt bolstered in his cause by support from international unions, which was applied in the wake of the lethal crackdown and for the duration of the incarceration and trial, which rights groups said was a sham.
“Our spirit is not dying; we are getting stronger,” he said, “because those armed forces cannot use their weapons and bullets to silence us.
“Today and tomorrow, we will demand a US$160 minimum wage for workers.”
Union leaders have argued for months that their demands for US$160 stem from proposals made by a government task force established last year.
Despite those findings, it stands at US$100—set late last year by the Ministry of Labour, but only after a series of strikes against an earlier decision by the tripartite Labour Advisory Committee (LAC), which is tasked with setting the minimum wage in Cambodia, to increase it from US$80 to US$95.
The LAC is made up of representatives from the government, unions and the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents employers.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an international coalition of unions, says it supports its partners, the Asia Floor Wage, in considering US$100 to be just 21 per cent of what it is a decent living wage.
The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest, driven primarily by demand from the US and the European Union.
In December, Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce reported the value of garment exports for the first 11 months of 2011 as being more than US$5 billion—a 22 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2012.
But workers are not reaping those benefits.
“I can’t make a living on these wages”
The 23 men have become symbols of an industry where about 90 per cent of the workers are women.
The sector has been plagued by strikes, discontent and mass faintings.
The sight of brightly dressed workers crammed like cattle into open-topped trucks to be transported to and from the factories is a common sight on Cambodia’s dust-choked national roads.
Home for nearly all of these workers are small, cell-like rooms. These compounds, which look more like prison blocks in some cases, can often be found adjacent or near to garment factories.
Facilities, such as toilets and water pumps for washing, are simple and communal.
Women leave their families and children behind in their home provinces to live and work in places like these, day in, day out. And often, they work overtime to supplement their meagre incomes.
Sin Phanny, a 23-year-old garment worker from Kompong Speu province in central Cambodia, knows this all too well, and said workers are desperate to earn enough money “not to become rich, but to meet basic needs.”
She has worked at the Sky Nice International footwear factory for the past five years. But with a rising cost of living to contend with, Phanny joined the strikes in the New Year and was beaten up by military police officers near the South Korean-owned Yak Jin factory—where her husband worked—on Thursday, 2 January.
Her husband, 21-year-old Lon San, is one of the 23 and had no job to return to upon his release.
“I protested because I can’t make a living with these poor wages,” she told
“I spend roughly US$40 for rent and utilities and I need to send money each month to my parents in the province, which is sometimes US$40 or US$50, so I limit my spending for food.”
Like so many in the industry, Phanny supplements this financial shortfall by working from 07.00 to 21.00, seven days a week.
Only then does she make between US$160 and US$170 a month.
Compounding her woes is the ordeal her husband was subjected to and the wages he was deprived of earning while behind bars and since his release, which has plunged their little family into “a severe economic crisis,” Phanny said.
“Even US$160 is not enough”
Another lingering aspect of last month’s guilty verdicts relates directly to the men’s union activities.
Since March, the Cambodian government has required union leaders to provide it with evidence of a clean criminal record if they wish to register new branches of their organisations.
That same month, the Ministry of Labour briefly suspended the constitutional right to unionise, pending the passage of a controversial draft labour law, about which big brands such as H&M, Gap, Adidas and Nike, as well as IndustriALL Global Union, Uni Global Union and the Interna¬tional Trade Union Confede-ration (ITUC), have all raised concerns.
Kong Athit, deputy president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the largest independent union in the country, said the 23’s guilty verdicts enabled the government to make a statement and maintain control, without further upsetting the international community.
“This is good for the government,” he told Equal Times.
“They do so, because they want to have good control and intimidation on those activists. If they jailed them, it would have caused discontent in the international human rights community and the image of Cambodia [would have been damaged], so they do what they want in that purpose.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labour project for the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), a legal rights NGO in Cambodia, said the violent crackdown on the fight for a living wage had become “a cancer in the garment industry in Cambodia.”
Even then, he said, US$160 is not enough for a worker to support her dependents, and pointed to the Labour Law, which stipulates that the minimum wage must meet that requirement.
“Article 107 of the Labour Law says the minimum wage should support the worker and her dependents, but US$160 is just enough to support the individual,” he said.
And if brands are serious about saying they are committed to honouring local laws, this stipulation should be at the heart of their involvement in ongoing talks, he said.
For Vorn Pao, the fight may have dragged on, but it is far from over.
“Garment workers have sacrificed everything to boost the garment sector, but the government has ignored calls to help the workers or ensure they have proper wages to have a decent living,” he said.
“Being held [in prison] for four months and 28 days, I have gained more strength, because imprisonment is not a barricade to stop us from demanding US$160 for garment workers,” he said.
GMAC and Labour Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.