GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160. After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.
Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.
“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.
“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained. Kun said the Messenger Band had supported garment workers by joining them in front of the Ministry of Labor. They distributed printed lyrics of songs and sang with them.
Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator for the Worker’s Information Centre, a group which helps garment workers organize, said they had witnessed peaceful protests and singing and dancing when they visited the site Thursday morning, the day before violence broke out. “I was so shocked when I got several calls from a few workers telling about the violence happening in the evening of January 2 and continued until midnight.”
Police had stormed another protest in Phnom Penh at a different factory, violently beating labor leaders and monks and arresting them. The oppressive tactics were swiftly shared on social media through smart phones, which has become the preferred source for information for Cambodia’s youth as the government owns over 90 percent of media outlets. Chinese-made smart phones cost as little as $30, making accessing Facebook on the go more affordable.
(via Asian Correspondent)
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