Cambodian garment workers organize an industry strike for higher monthly wages, 2010

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Timing
Time Period:  
September 10,
2010
to
September 16,
2010
Location and Goals
Country: 
Cambodia
Location City/State/Province: 
Phnom Phen
Goals: 
The garment workers were not happy with the new monthly minimum wage and went on strike to demand a 50% increase in the monthly minimum wage.
 

Between 2008 and 2010, the Cambodian economy experienced extreme hardship. In 2008, the Cambodian economy began to suffer from high inflation, which caused food prices to soar to new, expensive levels. Workers from one of Cambodia’s major industries, the garment industry, were left especially distraught.

The garment industry of Cambodia drove the Cambodian economy; major international corporations like Nike, Adidas, Gap, and Walmart were all key investors in the many garment factories. Over 345,000 Cambodians worked in the hundreds of garment factories scattered around the country. In 2008, the monthly minimum wage was raised to $50 dollars. This wage proved to be insufficient for the majority of factory workers who had to provide for themselves and their dependents.

Economic woes continued through 2009 and 2010 and the issue of monthly minimum wages continued to persist. In July of 2010, the Cambodian government reached an agreement with pro-government unions to increase the monthly minimum wage to $61. Once again, this wage proved to be insufficient for the majority of factory workers and the lack of satisfaction with the wage provoked much unrest in the garment worker community.

On the 10th of September, Ath Thun, the president of the Cambodian Labour Federation (CFC), made public statements threatening a massive strike by garment workers if the monthly minimum wage was not increased to meet the demands of inflation. Thun demanded a 50% raise in wages, which would set the monthly minimum wage at $93. Thun called the $93 a “living wage” and supported his claim with official estimates from the Cambodian government’s National Institute of Statistics, which stated that a monthly minimum wage of $93 was needed for garment workers to be able to afford food, housing, and other essential expenses.

Ken Loo, the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), called Thun’s call for a monthly minimum wage of $93 “impossible” and advised factories to pursue legal action if their workers participated in the strike. Loo also told reporters that the strike was unlikely to attract 80,000 workers, which had been the target number of the campaign.

During the time leading up to the strike, the government had proposed to renegotiate the garment workers’ benefit packages if the CFC would have called off the strike and its demands for a 50% wage increase. The CFC declined and chose to follow through with its threat regarding a massive strike. Consequently, after little action from the government, garment workers began striking on the 13th of September.

Most of the country’s 470 garment factories were located near the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. Some of the factories, such as San Lei Fung, were officially designated as “sweatshops” by various human rights organizations. On the first day of the strike, some 60,000 workers from 40 factories participated in the strike. Thun speculated that the turnout wasn’t as high as the CFC had hoped because some employers were threatening to fire their workers if they went on strike.

As the campaign progressed, more and more workers participated in the strike; on the 15th of September, Kong Athit, the secretary general for the CFC, reported that over 190,000 workers from 90 factories had joined the campaign. Many strikers were members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), which consisted of 40,000 workers. Inspired by the level of the support that the strike had been receiving, Athit made a public statement threatening to continue the strike for over a month if employers did not act.

After pressure from the government, the CFC ended the strike on the 16th of September. Over 210,000 of the country’s 350,000 garment workers had been on strike when the CFC ended the action. The government had warned the strikers that a continued stoppage would threaten worker benefits and potentially, the Cambodian economy. Thun said that the strike was called off because talks had been arranged with the employers to discuss the campaign’s demands.

The end of the campaign did not mark the end of tension. Two days after the strike had concluded, five garment workers were injured in a clash with police. Workers held a rally to protest the banning of some workers from returning to work. According to Thun, the government sent police to break up the rally and some of them clashed with workers for over half an hour, leaving five workers injured. Talks between workers and employers continued after the violent incident.

On the 24th of September, several important investors in the garment industry collaborated on a letter and sent it to both the workers and the GMAC. The investors noted their awareness of the situation and expressed hope that the two sides could come to an agreement. The same day, Loo made a statement saying that he thought an agreement was possible because the workers dropped their demand for a wage increase and asked, instead, for the creation of an attendance bonus, a seniority bonus, a food allowance, and a living wage allowance for workers. Thun then echoed Loo’s sentiments on the likelihood of the two sides reaching an agreement.

The most recent report from Cambodia, from mid-November, revealed that the two sides had yet to reach an agreement. Consequently, the campaign looks like it has been a failure up to that point. The strike was ended prematurely by threats from the government and the recent talks that have taken place between the two sides have excluded discussions about a monthly minimum wage increase. That demonstrates a clear abandonment by the campaign of a primary objective. It remains to be seen if the workers will be able to overcome the premature end to the campaign and achieve some level of success in the negotiations.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Not Known

Sources: 
Agence France-Presse. “Cambodian garment workers begin huge strikes over pay” Agence France-Presse 13 September 2010

----. “Cambodian garment workers call off strike as talks promised” Agence France-Presse 16

September 2010

----. “Cambodian garment workers injured in police clash” Agence France-Presse 18 September

2010

----. “Cambodian garment workers struggle to stitch together living” Agence France-Presse 27

September 2010

----. “Cambodian garment workers threaten massive strike” Agence France-Presse 10 September

2010

----. “Cambodian unions say garment strike could go for weeks” Agence France-Presse 15

September 2010

----. “Top brands fret about Cambodia garment industry unrest” Agence France-Presse 27

September 2010

Beaugé, Florence. “Cambodia garment workers strike for minimum wage hike” The Guardian 21 September 2010

Chan Thul, Prak. “Cambodia garment workers strike, seek higher wages” Reuters 13 September 2010

De Launey, Guy. “Garment workers begin strike in Cambodia” BBC News 13 September 2010

Johnston, Tim. “Striking Cambodian workers reflect Asian trend” Financial Times 13 September 2010

Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Argent Publishers, Inc, 2005.

Tsang, Denise. “Labour woes grip HK firms in Cambodia-Issues far from settled after massive workers’ strike hits garments industry” South China Morning Post 15 Novemeber 2010

Additional Notes: 
Following the conclusion of the strike, there was an incident where workers clashed with police, leaving five workers injured. On a separate note, negotiations between both parties remain ongoing as of November 2010.

M.R. Changes (09/04/2011): "Declarations of intent" added to segment 6 for the leaders' announcement that the strike would last for over a month, Survival score raised from 0.5 to 1 because the organizing union survived throughout the campaign.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Julio Alicea 28/11/2010