Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cambodian troops beat up garment workers campaigning for living wage

Source from http://observers.france24.com/content/20140102-cambodian-troops-striking-garment-monks

Garment factory workers were joined by monks to protest for a higher minimum wage. Photo by Moses Ngeth. 
After two weeks of unprecedented strikes by garment factory workers, Cambodian authorities launched a crackdown on Thursday, sending in troops in riot gear to violently disperse protesters. Witnesses report that dozens of people were injured, including monks who had come out to support the factory workers. Our Observer says that Cambodian workers are shockingly underpaid to make clothing for large Western brands.
For months now, the Cambodian opposition has been calling for new elections, after alleging voter fraud in last July’s election, in which long-ruling prime minister Hun Sen was re-elected. The main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has courted the country’s approximately 400,000 garment sector workers by promising that they would double the minimum monthly wage from the equivalent of 80 US dollars to 160 dollars (58 to 116 euros). On Tuesday, the government announced they would raise the minimum wage, but only by 15 dollars. This outraged the garment sector unions, who rallied to the opposition and launched a massive strike.
Cambodia’s garment sector is worth about 3.6 million euros. It is the country’s largest employer, and its biggest source of much-needed foreign income.
A group of protesters face off with soldiers in riot gear. Photo by Moses Ngeth.

“The current wages for garment factory workers are not sustainable”

Mory Sar is a human rights activist and the vice president of the Cambodian Youth Network. He went to Thursday’s protest to monitor the situation.

Garment workers went out to protest in front of Yak Jin factory a few miles out of Phnom Penh this morning [whose clients include GAP and Walmart]. Quite a few monks came out in solidarity. But then a confrontation broke out with the troops who had been dispatched to the scene. [According to AFP, some witnesses reported that this started when a few people threw stones toward the troops.] The soldiers started hitting protesters with clubs quite viciously. One monk was beaten so badly he wound up in the hospital. Meanwhile several monks and protest leaders were taken into detention.
A monk being treated in the hospital following Thursday morning's clashes between protesters and soldiers. Photo by Moses Ngeth, an activist with the Community Legal Education Centre. 
“Monks are highly respected in Cambodia; the authorities don’t want more of them joining the protests”
I wasn’t surprised by this violence: we were expecting a crackdown, because the authorities said that starting tomorrow [Friday], workers would be forced to go back to their jobs. I was quite appalled to see that soldiers were brought out to do the police’s job, and used such force. [The use of a special military command unit in such a situation is unprecedented and “signals a disturbing new tactic by the authorities”, according to a statement by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights]. The fact that they lashed out at monks is shocking, but I believe this is strategic: monks are highly respected in Cambodia, and the authorities don’t want more of them joining the protests.
Monks forming a human chain between garment workers and troops on Thursday afternoon. Following the morning's crackdown, protesters blocked roads. Photo by Moses Ngeth.
“The protests won’t die down just yet”
However, I don’t think the protests will die down just yet. All of those protesting are saying that they’ll be back out in the streets tomorrow, because now, they no longer have just one demand – a higher minimum wage – but two: a higher minimum wage and the release of their arrested leaders.
Moreover, the protesters know that what they’re asking for is reasonable. Doubling their wages may sound like a lot, but they are drastically underpaid to begin with. The cost of everything has increased over the past few years – renting a house, electricity, goods in the market… all of it. Economists have calculated that 160 dollars is just enough for workers to live decently – to eat, to pay for their children’s studies, to pay for health care, very basic things like that. If the minimum wage was 160 dollars, that would still make labour here quite cheap compared to most countries in the world, not to mention that taxes are quite low. So none of the protesters are worried about the factories closing and moving elsewhere.
Currently, garment workers have to work tons of overtime to make ends meet. Most of these workers come from rural areas, and have to support families back home. The current wages are simply not sustainable.

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