Last January in Phnom Penh, the garment industry seemed to be coming apart at the seams: protesters thronged through the streets, several died after security forces opened fire and union leaders were detained for weeks without trial. A year on, the unrest has subsided and workers are getting a modest wage hike, but the systematic suppression of unions continues to breed bitter outrage.
Last December, hundreds of workers rallied at the South Korean Embassy to demand justice at the Korean-owned Cambo Kotop factory, following the alleged illegal dismissal of union leaders who had planned a strike. They were opposing a court order to return to work.
Pav Sina, head of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) issued a public letter on Friday describing deteriorating conditions at the plant, which employs about 2,500 people and supplies brands like Gap and Walmart.
Nowadays, the workers’ rights and freedom are badly repressed by the company-management…. For instance, [when] the workers…talk to each other during their lunch time, the company always take photos and tell them to stop immediately, especially when the workers, employees talk about the union tasks.
The union called directly on Gap to “urgently intervene in these illegal dismissals” and pressure the supplier to “stop interfering and discriminating” against any union activities.
Cambo Kotop is just one facet of Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment export industry, which supplies a vast low-wage labor supply to the US and European brands that dominate the $1.7 trillion global fashion market. Last year, several major brands voiced public support for raising the industry’s minimum wage. But international scrutiny has since dissipated, and workers are again demanding international support for their union rights.
The Ministry of Labor has responded only tepidly to the Cambo Kotop protests. On December 30, labor official Vong Sovann told Cambodia Daily that the management had been ordered to reinstate the fired union representatives but had simply refused to comply. “Both sides are in the wrong,” he contended, “because the factory suspended the workers without permission from the ministry and the workers joined the strike without informing the authorities.”