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What’s the Price of Workers’ Lives in Cambodia?

The killing of five garment workers in Cambodia suggests that they have been mobilized in service to a political agenda that has little to do with their own search for survival.

Garment workers at Freedom Park. (Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

By now you’ve heard that military police in Cambodia killed five garment workers demanding a living wage of $160 per month in the early days of 2014, but only some of this is true.

Here’s a slightly more accurate version: On Tuesday, December 24, during a period of nationwide political unrest, the Cambodian government announced a raise of $15 to garment workers’ monthly minimum wage of $80, for a new total of $95 per month, to start in April, 2014. Workers responded the next day by walking off jobs and demanding the current wage be doubled, for a new monthly wage of $160.

The next few days saw the largest demonstrations in the country’s history. Tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – gathered. Protesters were holding demonstrations all over the city: stopping work, blocking roads, holding rallies. The mood of these events was primarily jubilant, although there was a dark side. Numbers of demonstrators continued to swell.

On January 3, in one of Cambodia’s several special economic zones, protesters gathered around 9 AM. At that time, as striking worker Kha Sei recalls, “The workers, who work with the garments, they stop working and they have the marching and dancing.” He’s a young man in a bright red T-shirt, and he is livid. “Then the police come by truck and take out the guns and then fight the dancers.”

Hundreds of military police lined up along Veng Sreng street, where Kha Sei and I are standing. He mimics their actions and points to the sky. Helicopters, still a rare sight in the developing nation, had buzzed overhead that day. Standard AK-47s – common enough since the Khmer Rouge days only 35 years go – mixed in with newer Norinco Type 97A assault rifles. The MPs wore shiny new riot gear. The crowd threw rocks and sticks; the police fired warning shots over the heads of protesters. The crowd responded with crude Molotov cocktails. Police answered with live rounds, killing at least five, injuring more than 40 and arresting 23. Kha Sei watched a coworker die, then another striker was hit. The young man (who would not give his family name) helped carry one gunshot victim to a nearby medical clinic. For a short time, it was war, waged upon and by folks who still remember the trauma of the Khmer Rouge.

What you’ve been told is that this is about the struggle for living wages in the garment factories. It’s not. In fact, the needs of garment workers have barely been addressed, their bodies put to service toward a larger political agenda. Meanwhile, their struggles are only some among many in rapidly changing Cambodia.

Rainsy’s Bid for Power

That’s the day Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia after four years in France. It had been his second self-imposed exile since being elected to the National Assembly in 1998; the first was undertaken to avoid serving time over specious defamation charges he faced after accusing the ruling party of corruption. In 2009, he’d been accused of racial incitement and destruction of property after leading a protest at the border with Vietnam. A mid-July pardon from King Norodom Sihanomi allowed his return to the country in advance of the general elections, although his July 22 application to stand as leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was rejected. His request to be reinstated to the National Assembly, dominated by the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), also was denied.

The CPP, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, claimed victory in the July 28 general elections, with 68 parliamentary seats out of 123. (The CPP’s 2008 win had secured 90 of 123 seats.) Few expressed surprise; Cambodia had been ruled by Hun Sen for nearly 30 years and, prior to that, the leader had been involved in every ruling body in the country’s history, including the Khmer Rouge. Still, corruption runs rampant in Cambodian politics and many did express concern. Election observers noted inconsistencies; the victory, they suggested, may have been ill-won. No official population measurement system exists in Cambodia, so polls were all estimates, and individual voters were untracked across precincts. That votes were cast under alternative names seems possible; cast votes were marked with indelible ink, a donation from the Indian Embassy that is easily removed with lime juice.

Key to election-result skepticism was the overwhelming support for the CNRP cause shown by garment workers. A campaign promise to raise their minimum wage to $150 had proven compelling, and the vast majority of the country’s 400,000 garment workers were believed to have cast votes for the opposition. Although garment workers make up less than 3 percent of the country’s population, their incomes directly support a full 20 percent of its residents, and their labor facilitates the third-largest industry in Cambodia (also keeping the second-largest, agriculture, afloat on their wages). They are, in other words, influential. (The CNRP pledge in March had an immediate effect, prompting the government to raise the minimum wage from $61 to $75.) The CNRP began to question the victory the day after the elections, calling for independent investigations into widespread voting fraud. On July 31, Rainsy announced that the CNRP won a majority of the National Assembly, with 63 seats, leaving eight seats in dispute, although little evidence was offered. Human Rights Watch released a statement alleging voter fraud by the CPP. When Hun Sen dismissed the dispute and vowed to lead the new government on August 2, Rainsy requested the United Nations step in to resolve the deadlock and, a week later, threatened nationwide protests. Hun Sen deployed troops and armored personnel carriers in Phnom Penh in response. “We are not afraid,” Rainsy answered August 7, warning of mass demonstrations.

Preliminary official results declared Hun Sen the re-elected leader August 24. Rainsy appealed to King Sihanomi and, on September 7, launched peaceful mass rallies in Phnom Penh in preparation for the final official election results. These arrived September 8, when election authorities confirmed Hun Sen’s victory. CNRP rejected the count as fraudulent, and King Sihanomi invited Hun Sen and Rainsy to negotiate September 14. These negotiations ended with no resolution.

On September 15, an estimated 20,000 opposition supporters gathered in Phnom Penh. Razor-wire barricades near CNRP headquarters were set up; a man intending to remove them was shot in the head; several more were injured. The CNRP claimed the dead man was not a protestor but an angry local seeking access to his home. The next day, CNRP protesters gathered in Freedom Park, a protest zone established in 2010 with a complicated system of permits and limits to numbers of attendees and usage hours. Despite evacuation demands, protestors – many from the provinces – set up camp in the park. Hun Sen and Rainsy met for further negotiations with Sihanomi, and agreed to heed the king’s call to end violence, to set up a mechanism to bring about election reform in the future and to continue negotiations.

A three-day CNRP rally to protest Hun Sen’s leadership of the country, October 23 through 25, ended peacefully, but a November 12 strike at the SL Garment factory turned violent, as a street vendor was killed by police. Between 600 and 700 workers at the factory were fired illegally.

The CNRP planned a protest to coincide with UN Human Rights Day, December 10, and by the next week, protests were being held daily. The CNRP rallying cry, Choh Chenh Tov Euy – Hun Sen Must Go – caught on at this time. Rainsy, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha and the CNRP’s head of public affairs, the human and women’s rights leader Mu Sochua, began a garment-worker outreach campaign in late December to pool support: Mu visited workers in Kampong Chhnang, and Rainsy visited the Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone and the Sabrina Garment Factory in Kampong Speu. “We would like to call on workers nationwide to support each other and hold a strike as long as their salary has not been increased to $160,” Rainsy told striking workers.

While opposition support grew, the ruling party became increasingly hostile toward demonstrators: monks in protest of government inaction of a stolen Buddhist relic were harassed or beaten. Strikes continued around the country, a union effort to increase pressure on the government. Not just garment workers: teachers, government employees and others walked off jobs demanding higher wages. People in Cambodia expressed open, daily shock that the demonstrations were allowed to go on at all. The Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia (GMAC) spokesperson hinted darkly that the government should step in and squelch the demonstrations, refusing to take the $160 request seriously. December 29 – thanks in large part to the flanks of garment workers convinced to join CNRP rallies by the call for the $160 monthly wage – saw the largest public demonstration in Cambodian history. The gatherings were peaceful, even joyous, but laced with something darker. A seemingly innocuous CNRP call for immigration reform had an ugly underbelly: blatant anti-Vietnamese discrimination coinciding with lootings and vandalism at Vietnamese-owned stores and oft-heard cries of “Yuon,” a Khmer term for the Vietnamese that often is used pejoratively.

The Ministry of Labour announced a new minimum wage on January 1: $100 per month. Demonstrations continued.

On January 3, at least five garment workers were shot at the Canadia Industrial Park off of Route 2 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. And on January 4, hired thugs cleared out Freedom Park, beating demonstrators mercilessly, while helicopters hovered. Rainsy and Sokha were asked to appear in court nine days later to respond to allegations that they had incited striking garment workers to commit crimes and create social unrest. Riot cops casually dotted the city; a ban on public gatherings of more than ten people was enacted.

But here’s the game changer: On January 5, the Phnom Penh Post reported, CPP and CNRP officials held secret meetings even as they publicly claimed to call off negotiations. Sources said representatives were negotiating a constitutional amendment, the establishment of a new parliamentary commission and a division of the current commission chairs equally between the two parties, the creation of a joint committee on electoral reform, and a television license for the CNRP.

Garment workers didn’t make the cut. In fact, no one had mentioned the $160 monthly wage for days.

DEC29_AEM_RAINSY_AND_SOKHA_AT_LARGEST-EVER_DEMONSTRATION.jpgRainsy and Sokha at largest ever demonstration. (Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

“We’re Not Scared of Dying”

While Rainsy’s support for garment workers seemed strong in December, it has not been consistent over the years. He worked early on to help establish the Free Trade Union (FTU) alongside Vichea Chea, the beloved garment labor organizer and FTU president murdered in 2004. Yet Rainsy’s periods of exile put him out of reach for several years, and his political machinations certainly took precedence over workers’ concerns in general and wage issues in particular after his return to the country.

Some charged his outreach to workers was a late-coming and transparent ploy. Siphan Phayhe, spokesman for Council of Ministers, told the Phnom Penh Post that the CNRP “is trying everything to get rid of the prime minister. Wages should be separate. … [The garment workers] are not politically oriented – they’re just striking for better salary.”

Vannath Chea, an independent political analyst, agreed, calling the conflation of issues a “very risky game.” Indeed, Sophy, an early-20s worker at a Canadia Industrial Park factory who preferred to withhold her last name, told me flat out on January 6 that she didn’t back the CNRP. We were standing at the site where five of her co-workers had been killed by police. “I’ll be with you and protect you all,” Rainsy had told workers just a few days before. Echoing the theme, Kem Sokha had some words for the CPP in front of crowds at Freedom Park: “Don’t think that we are afraid. We’re not scared of dying, but of losing our nation.”

“I don’t care about [them],” Sophy said. She was worn out and hungry. She couldn’t afford cooking gas, rice, or shampoo, she told me. “I just need a higher salary.” I asked if she wanted $160 per month, the figure the CNRP urged she and her fellow strikers demand.

“No,” she said.

“Then what did you want?”

“Only $100.”

“But the government offered $100, two days before people died here. Why did you still strike?”

“Not until February. January is better,” she said, stoically. Twenty more dollars, a month earlier than originally offered. I wondered if anyone had brought it to the negotiating table.

The Living Wage

On December 25, Kem Sokha announced in Freedom Park that an official CNRP campaign to help workers secure a $160 monthly minimum wage would begin the next day. Rainsy repeated the refrain immediately. “I call on all of you to keep struggling until your demands for a $160 minimum wage are met,” he told crowds on December 26. The call swelled his numbers, but the math remained fuzzy: Many presumed the number to refer to a living wage, but impartial living wage estimates – which the Cambodia Institute of Development Study (CIDS) defines as “a wage that provides for decent living for a worker and his/her dependents, within regulated working hours (not including overtime) from one income source, and should allow for some savings” – hadn’t been tallied since 2009.

Cambodia doesn’t provide official cost-of-living estimates, but if you are meticulous about saving receipts and have spent enough time in a place, such increases are possible to estimate. By cross-referencing my own cost increases in Phnom Penh between 2009 and today with relevant numbers from Numbeo, which collects user-submitted data on costs of living around the world (the site is English-language-only, catering to English-speaking ex-pats), I estimate, for Western foreigners in Phnom Penh, an increase of about 124.5 percent over the past five years. Actual costs are likely to change per individual – corruption, in fact, guarantees that they will – but I assume a similar cost inflation might hit garment workers during that same time period. (Actual costs differ significantly: In 2009 I paid $13 per night, or $390 per month, for a room in the city center, and garment workers I spoke to in the south side of Phnom Penh paid $10, split between two people, for rent in a single room. Today I might pay around $20 per night for similar lodging, or $600 per month, whereas garment workers I spoke to in the Canadia Industrial Park split $15 per month rent between the two of them. Other costs, however, appear to have risen less rapidly.) CIDS’ February 2009 report, based on actual costs accrued by a survey of 353 garment workers, calculates both a minimum living wage, in which the garment worker is presumed to be contributing equally to household expenses with another income-earner, and a maximum living wage, in which the garment workers is the sole income earner in the household. CIDS calculated the 2009 minimum living wage at $90 and the maximum at $120. Applying the 124.5% increase puts the current minimum living wage at $112.50 and the maximum living wage at $149.40. (The latter figure is in line with a 2013 report from Behind the Label activists and the Community Legal Education Center called “Shop ’til They Drop.” It suggests a living wage of $150 per person – nearly half the $294 per month wage suggested by the Asian Floor Wage Alliance – in an argument largely based on nutritional needs of workers.) But even rounding this up to $113 and $150 doesn’t get us a living wage estimate of $160.

DEC28 AEM DEMANDS FOR 160 PER MONTH APPEARED THROUGHOUT THE CITYDemands for $160 per month appeared throughout. (Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

“A Problem of a Lack of Policy”

Sopheap Chek, the program director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has been watching recent events closely. “You have to come up with the data, come up with a reason why $160 now,” she said. She’s an articulate young woman with an easy command of English perfected during an early embrace of blogging, which she took up even before electricity and Internet access were reliable in the rebuilding nation. “There is a problem of a lack of policy,” she says. Several CCHR programs track labor abuses in the garment industry and gender-based discrimination generally. “It is a real question: At what point did you come up with $160? And even once it had been said, there was no statement about why that rate.”

The first time my research uncovered mention of the $160 wage was December 16, when a working group of GMAC members, labor leaders, and government officials announced three possible plans for raising wages in the industry. One of several paths to a $160 wage by 2018 was set to be announced the following week, according to the Phnom Penh Post: incremental raises of $16 per year, or an immediate raise to $160 – presumably with no more raises to come during that period. The president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, Ath Thorn, a working group member, told the Post he’d demanded an immediate raise to $154 per month. The CNRP campaign for $160 – presented by politicians, with no policy reasoning or economist input, as Chek opines – came a week and a half later.

Not Garment Workers Only

The number matters. Not just because at least five people were killed over it. In Cambodia wages are low – most are lower than that. High school teachers, for example, make between $85 and $100 per month before bribes (most charge students a certain amount of money per day to attend school, as government wages frequently come late; they also are striking for higher wages of $250 per month) and elementary teachers $50 to $70 before bribes. Laborers at a local private university bring home $60 per month, as do grocery store clerks. Food vendors tell me they make around 10,000 riel per day – close to $2.50, or on a good day closer to $5 (but those are rare), or between $75 and $150 at the outside per month. Hostess bars typically pay women between $50 and $60 per month, before their cut of tips and “lady drinks” – beverages purchased by customers that give them $1 or $2 profit. A local NGO that serves sex workers tells me that those who cater to international clientele can make $20 per night; those who work with Khmer clients make $2 per night, or $60 per month. (The NGO aims to pay them “competitive rates” while they offer training in the skills necessary to leave the sex industry but admits they fall short. This leaves women who choose to leave sex work under their guidance in the awkward position of bringing in some of the lowest wages in the country, with little to offset the poverty besides a potential sense of moral superiority and a regular job outside the garment industry.) Tuk-tuk drivers generally make $100 to, sometimes, $250 per month, but this work is not only informal and unpredictable, it is not often available to women. Other jobs certainly are not; most banks, stores and firms prefer male workers. Even foreign NGOs operating in Cambodia have fired women when they became pregnant.

“Why is it just garment worker? Why isn’t it teacher? The teacher earn a bachelor degree, and they get [an] even lower [salary] than garment factory worker?” Chek asks. When I ask another friend what she thinks about strikers demanding $160 per month, she rolls her eyes. “Why they don’t talk about a national minimum wage,” she spits. She’s what we call in the States a knowledge worker – someone engaged in public education and information dissemination but who doesn’t work in a classroom. The place she works put the kibosh on public participation in political demonstrations even before the violence broke out; I’m not going to name her here. What she asked me next echoed Chek’s query: Why should garment workers be paid almost three times their peers? Certainly wages should not be distributed along a scale of moral appropriateness, whereby knowledge workers are paid more than mere emotional or physical laborers, and certainly not one determined by an American sensibility. But higher education is expensive in the country. Other questions are raised: What does it imply that already the wages of factory workers who create products largely for American consumption remain the best hope of economic security for women besides marrying a high-ranking and corrupt government official?

Put another way, one reason that the wage situation for garment workers is atrocious is because it is one of very few sustainable employment options for women, exclusively in that it comes closest to paying a living wage on a predictable basis. In truth, raising income in other industries would also benefit the garment workers, in that they would have greater opportunities to not do garment work. Granted, the garment industry is the only one we really have any responsibility for, in the US, as its primary end users. But activists’ blind advocacy for a raise in pay that appears randomly selected to advance a political war is fallacy.

JAN2 AEM A SHUTTERED FACTORY AWAITS THE RETURN OF STRIKERSA shuttered factory awaits the return of strikers. (Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

A Better Result

“Garment workers had been paid $45 in 2000, and then in 2006, it just jumped to $50. Then it increased many times in 2013. Why? There should be a clear study on this figure, and then put a 5 percent increase for inflation per year, or similar,” Sopheap Chek argues. “If we have discussed properly, we can convince more. We can bring about a better result.”

CCHR has been following the demonstrations carefully, and not just from the standpoint of human rights observers. Her boss, CCHR President Virak Ou, has been under fire lately for publicly condemning statements made by the opposition party.

It started December 10, International Human Rights Day, when Rainsy suggested Hun Sen was “weaker than a woman,” and referred again to Vietnamese people as “yuon.” Ou signed a statement on behalf of CCHR requesting an explanation and reminding the CNRP of previously stated commitments to support gender diversity and to oppose violence, racism and xenophobia.

CCHR has been under fire since, with death threats and name calling – pointedly, Ou has repeatedly been called “yuon,” although he is not Vietnamese. One poster commented on his Facebook page, “Must Go Ou Virak,” a reference to the popular chant to oust Hun Sen. Defenders seem to paint the chastisement as a condemnation of opposition to the ruling party in toto, as opposed to a principled stand against biased language. It frustrates Chek and her co-workers, and not just because they’ve been under fire, too: she’s watched some civil society organizations fail to call the CNRP out on human rights violations. The casual denigration of women and fear-mongering language around the Vietnamese both had perceptible effects on the demonstrations, from the looting of stores owned by Vietnamese immigrants to the enlistment of garment workers as political allies when needed, with no continued advocacy for their demands beyond that point to date. It may be politics as usual in Cambodia, but Cambodia is changing. “[We created a] moment where civil society is rising up,” Chek says. Her voice is filled with emotion. “We should maintain that moment. But when we do something wrong, that moment that opened can be [destroyed]. That’s what happened. We pushed the government into a corner, and the government just crashed back.”

“The world that we have tried so hard to achieve since 1997 … ” She lets the date hang in the air. The last time political clashes in the emerging democracy became this heated, tens of people were killed as the two major political parties vied for power. Hun Sen’s CPP emerged victorious, but deaths and disappearances continued for months, largely uninvestigated, even after the 1998 general election.

“It’s very fragile,” she finishes.

When There’s Nothing Left to Fear

When the clash started at Canadia Industrial Park on January 3, there was panic. Kha Sei grows visibly agitated as he tells me about it. “When the police shoot the people, one guy died over there,” he points to a spot a few feet away. “He’s still alive? The police shoot more.”

A man was badly injured not far from where Kha Sei stood, but they were across the street from the Ekreach Medical Clinic. He and two friends rushed the injured man into the clinic while the shootings continued. “But,” Kha Sei says, “the owner of the hospital didn’t take care.”

“He refused to help?” I asked. “Why?

The look the young man gave me in return was cold. “He was scared about the government,” he said. “So we do this.” He turns and waves to the clinic we are standing in front of. It has been destroyed.

JAN6 TRASHED HOSPITAL INTERIORTrashed hospital interior. (Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

When the man Kha Sei and his friends were carrying was refused medical help, he died. The small group of men took their revenge on the facility, first chasing out a woman who had just given birth then smashing everything in sight. They tore doors from hinges, broke windows, stripped open record books and shattered equipment, cabinets and an X-Ray machine – everything. The vice director of the clinic, Dr. Lim Mesa, says the men did $230,000 damage. It’s hard to blame the doctor for refusing to help – the government at that moment wasn’t an abstract fear. It was real, and it was killing people, not 30 feet away. But it’s also impossible not to understand these young men’s rage.

Three days later, the men are still there, on guard. Kha Sei and his friends stand in front of the clinic they destroyed as a reminder: you cannot fear the government forever.

This was never about political power to them. It was, and still is, about a fragile hope to survive.

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