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Vol. 77/No. 46      December 23, 2013

(front page)
‘We beat back union busting,’
say garment workers in Cambodia

Phnom Penh Post/Hong Menea
Workers at massive SL Garment factory celebrate after winning back pay, reinstatement of fired union leaders and removal of military cops from plant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Dec. 3.

“We went back in with a union and no one left behind. We beat back this union busting,” Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said by phone from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Dec. 6.

Workers in that city at SL Garment Processing, one of Asia’s largest garment factories, returned to work Dec. 4 after a nearly four-month battle in which they confronted attacks by military police, riot cops and company thugs on union marches, rallies and picket lines.

The strike began Aug. 12 over eight demands, including a raise in the minimum wage from $80 to $150 a month, a $3 lunch stipend, removal of military police from the plant and that the company dismiss and sever ties with adviser and shareholder Meas Sotha, whom the workers identify with the use of military cops in the plant.

Workers won their demands for removal of military police from the plant and dismissal of Sotha, 50 percent back pay for the time on strike and reinstatement of 19 union leaders SL Garment fired in September.

“It’s a real victory for all workers and it took a real fight to get there,” said Athit. “The 19 members of the union committee are back and working. Without their reinstatement, we never would have signed any agreement.”

The Singapore-owned SL Garment plant employs nearly 6,000 workers, producing for H&M, Gap and Levi’s. About 2,500 are members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, which organized the strike. Two other smaller unions exist in the plant. Many unaffiliated workers took part in the walkout.

The union has organized numerous actions during the 16-week battle. Demonstrations of thousands marched to Phnom Penh City Hall, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the residence of Prime Minister Hun Sen to demand government intervention.

On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 violent clashes with police against strike demonstrators outside the plant left 10 workers injured.

On Nov. 12, hundreds of riot police attacked a demonstration of some 1,000 workers with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. A woman selling rice on the roadside was killed and 20 others rushed to the hospital with gunshot wounds. Three days later the government of Hun Sen gave SL Garment 15 days to reinstate all workers.

The back pay due former strikers amounts to $1 million.

“This still has to be paid out,” Athit said. “The company says it doesn’t have the funds and has requested the government and international retailers provide them. We’ll follow this closely to make sure it happens. The workers who were the backbone of the strike haven’t had any money coming in for months, so this is very important.

“In the course of the strike, we dropped five of our demands and kept pushing for the most important ones,” said Athit. “The demand for higher wages and a lunch stipend we have lifted to the national level. We will work with other industrial unions to press for this. It’s really necessary, there have been some very big price increases recently and we need higher wages to keep up.”

During November prices of meat, fish, vegetables and oil rose by 10 to as much as 30 percent.

Unions gathered in Phnom Penh Nov. 24 pressing for the raise in the monthly minimum wage, saying they would launch strikes and demonstrations if the demand is not met.

“We want the demands to be made through statements or requests. We don’t want to see anything affect production,” Garment Manufacturers Association representative Cheath Khemara said to Radio Free Asia Nov. 26.

The government has said it will raise the minimum wage in January, but didn’t say by how much. After a meeting among representatives of the government, unions and garment bosses Nov. 28, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng appealed to “all workers to calm down” because of a coming raise.

More than 90 percent of the 500,000 workers in more than 500 garment and shoe factories are women. The industry accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia’s total exports.
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