Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cambodian garment workers threaten week-long strike

This article highlights the continued struggle over workers' rights in Cambodia, particular in the garment industry which is one of the hardest hit industries from the 2008 economic downturn worldwide. I particularly like the audacity of the little girl walking in front of the police and other security officers.

Police officers watch over a march held to mark the anniversary of the death of Chea Vichea, former president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, yesterday. The union, Cambodia's largest, said yesterday it would launch a nationwide strike unless authorities arrest those responsible for shooting dead Vichea at a news stand in the capital in January 2004. Two men were convicted of the deaths and sentenced to 20-year prison terms, but many people believed they were framed and the Supreme Court has ordered a retrial.

PHNOM PENH, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Two of Cambodia's biggest workers' unions on Friday threatened to hold a nationwide garmet-industry strike to protest over low pay and the unsolved murder of the country's most respected union leader.

Two unions said thousands of garment factory workers would halt production for a week to press the government to arrest the killers of top unionist Chea Vichea, as hundreds marched in Phnom Penh to mark the sixth anniversary of his killing.

A workers' strike would represent a rare test for the government of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has used a parliament dominated by his Cambodia People's Party (CPP) to push through tough laws to stifle dissent.

It comes at a tricky time for Cambodia as it tries to recover from a sharp economic decline that followed an unprecedented four-year boom before the global financial crisis took its toll.

Garment factories employ 330,000 workers in Cambodia and are vital to the impoverished country's nascent economy. Garments are Cambodia's third-biggest earner behind agriculture and tourism.

It exported $1.95 billion worth of garments in 2008 to its biggest market, the United States, up from $1.27 billion in 2004, according to the Commerce Ministry. Last year's figures are not yet available.

The workers are supporters of Chea Vichea, a vocal critic of Cambodia's business and political elite who was shot dead in January 2004. Two men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for his murder.


The United Nations said their conviction was a "grave injustice" and rights groups said the pair were framed.

The Supreme Court in December 2008 ordered their release on bail pending a review of the case. There have since been no new arrests.

The two unions threatening action were the Free Trade Union (FTU), which represents 78,000 garment workers and the Cambodian Labour Federation (CLF) with 50,000 members from the same sector.

"We send this message to the government that it's time to find the killers, for the family, to make us calm," said Chea Mony, brother of Chea Vichea and president of the FTA.

CLF president Ath Thon said the outspoken Chea Vihea was a "hero" among garment workers because he fought for an increase in their minimum monthly wage from $30 to $45 during the 1990s.

He said workers were having difficulty making ends meet and they would also use the strike to demand a pay increase.

"Our workers don't have enough to spend, their health is getting weaker, they eat less, live in bad places and work hard," Ath Thon added. The unions did not say whether they would stage a protest alongside the strike. Cambodia's parliament approved a law in October banning demonstrations of more than 200 people and requiring five days notice for smaller protests.

That, and a tightening of defamation laws, sparked criticism from opposition lawmakers and rights groups, which said the government was trying to intimidate its critics and crack down on freedom of expression.

Cambodian national police spokesman Kirth Chantharith declined to comment on Chea Vichea's murder investigation but said there would be no attempt to block the strike as long as workers sought permission from the authorities.

"We have laws on demonstrations and police are ready to respect them," he said.

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