Asia

Cambodian Garment Workers Go Free After Convictions for Strikes


Vorn Pao, president of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, with supporters and journalists after being released from prison on May 30 in Phnom Penh

Photograph by Omar Havana/Getty Images

Vorn Pao, president of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, with supporters and journalists after being released from prison on May 30 in Phnom Penh

In late December and early January, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian garment workers joined a union-led strike calling for the minimum monthly wage to be raised to $160. The demonstrations were violently suppressed by military police, who killed at least four people and injured many others. Twenty-five men, including several union leaders and community activists, were arrested and imprisoned on Jan. 2 and 3—unjustly so, according to local civic groups.

The defendants were tried at Phnom Penh Municipal Court over five days in April and May for inciting violence during the strikes. Independent video footage taken by Cambodian journalists shows police instigating violence. The court convicted all defendants and issued sentences of up to four-and-a-half years before suspending the sentences and releasing the defendants on Friday.

Moeun Tola of the Phnom Penh-based nonprofit Community Legal Education Center, which frequently works with unions, said in a statement: “We are extremely happy that these men, who have become a symbol of the struggle of Cambodian workers to receive a minimum wage of $160, will be able to return to their families. However, it remains deeply disappointing that there has still been no justice for the dead and injured”—those who perished or sustained injuries during the bloody crackdown—“and that no attempts have been made to find or bring charges against those responsible.” To date, no members of the police or armed forces have been prosecuted for firing on unarmed civilians.

In a country where all major TV stations are controlled by the government, the nonprofit Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights carried live updates from the trial on its website. The rallying call of “Free the 23” (two defendants with severe injuries were released earlier for medical reasons) became a popular slogan at other strikes and protests this spring as well as outside the courthouse.

Even in the face of violence, activists continue campaigning to raise Cambodia’s minimum wage and improve conditions for garment workers. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, which represents factory owners, contends that higher salaries could make the country less competitive. Cambodia’s fast-growing textile sector has benefited from rising wages in nearby China.

Earlier this week, representatives from several major international brands, including Gap (GPS), Puma, and Levi Strauss, met with government representatives in Phnom Penh. According to IndustriALL Global Union, a Switzerland-based labor group that was allowed to observe the talks, at least some of the brands said they would consider absorbing higher factory costs if the minimum wage was raised.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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