After launching a nationwide strike last December, Cambodia’s garment workers are back in the streets demanding a monthly minimum wage of 177 US dollars.
Last year’s strike was organized to pressure the government to raise the monthly wage, which at that time stood at 80 dollars. Garment workers wanted to double the wages they were receiving, but the government only allowed an increase of 15 to 20 dollars. The strike mobilized tens of thousands of workers across the country, but it was violently dispersed by state forces in January, which resulted in the death of five workers.
The current monthly minimum wage received by Cambodian garment workers is pegged at 100 dollars. Export earnings of the garment sector represent about a third of the country’s 15.25-billion-dollar GDP last year. There are more than 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia, and the majority of them are female. But aside from receiving low wages, workers also suffer from poor working conditions, which often result in mass fainting incidents in various sweatshop factories.
This week, garment workers have revived the campaign for a wage increase, but this time they directed their appeal to the global clothing brands that buy and sub-contract supply from Cambodia. The campaign, dubbed as “The buyer must provide basic wages $177”, is aimed at pressuring global brands such as H&M, Walmart, Levi’s, Gap Puma, C&A, Adidas and Zara to directly negotiate a higher wage for workers with their suppliers.
#WeNeed177 Post the green logo to all brands sourcing from Cambodia demanding they raise the minimum wage to 177$ pic.twitter.com/7CnJSRIXmb
— CNV Internationaal (@CNV_Internat) September 17, 2014
More than 500 garment workers gathered at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to press for higher wages. According to garment unions, about 300 factories across the country have joined the protest.
This video shows workers holding banners as they demand international companies not to starve the garment workers of Cambodia
Union leaders explained that the 177-dollar minimum wage demand is based on the average monthly spending of garment workers. One of the workers who participated in the rally echoed the sentiment of her fellow workers to English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily:
We want a higher wage because today we don’t have enough money to support ourselves because everything is very expensive, like rent, electricity, water and food.
The Community Legal Education Center, a local human rights group, is supporting the campaign as it urged the brands and their suppliers “to meet their responsibility and ensure human dignity for their Cambodian workers.”
The government responded by deploying police and army units in the protest site. Meanwhile, the opposition assured workers that they will bring the wage campaign inside the parliament.
A soldier films protesting #garment workers in #phnompenh as they continue to demand a wage increase. #cambodia. pic.twitter.com/YxiuWZzLku
— Luc Forsyth (@LucForsyth) September 17, 2014
The wage increase campaign is supported by labor unions in many countries. In Canada, there is an online petition urging consumers not to buy clothes “tainted with exploitation and repression.”
Hopefully, the planned series of protests will remain peaceful and the government will respect the right of workers to demand better living and working conditions. It is also important for global clothing brands to prove their commitment to improve the welfare of workers in Cambodia's garment factories.