Encouraged by labor agitation in the region, tens of thousands of workers stage a walkout. It nets only a government proposal to discuss benefits in the future, but organizers call the strike a success.

Workers listen to their leader speak during a strike at the Chinese-owned Pine Great Cambodia Garment Co. Ltd. in Phnom Penh September 13, 2010. (Reuters/Chor Sokunthea)

By Brendan Brady

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Tens of thousands of garment workers staged a walkout in the Cambodian capital in recent days, encouraged by agitation across the region for improved pay and benefits in the low-paying apparel industry.

In Bangladesh, an 80% increase in the monthly minimum wage to $43, still the lowest in the region, didn’t stop riots last month by workers who said the raise was not enough.

Cambodia’s work stoppage was relatively peaceful, with participants from the industry’s overwhelmingly female workforce chanting slogans and occasionally pumping their fists. Work stoppages ended in the middle of last week with a government proposal to discuss workers’ benefits at a later date.

Still, protest organizers called the strike a success and framed it as part of a broader movement that included protests aimed at foreign-owned factories in China’s coastal provinces and Vietnam.

“Those protests [in other countries] encouraged us,” said Ath Thun, who spearheaded the strike and is president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.”Garment workers in those countries received more wages when they protested, so we thought we should too, since our wages are also unacceptably low.

Chan Bopha said she didn’t need outside inspiration to realize that her earnings were lean. The 26-year-old protested outside the Chung Fai Knitwear factory in Phnom Penh, where she had worked for nearly a decade.

With overtime, she earned around $80 a month. All the money goes to pay for rent, utilities, food, her children’s education and to support her mother. “And then, there’s nothing left for anything,” she said.

Another worker, 22-year-old Soung Lin, said, “I was striking because I want to send more money home to my parents and brothers. I want my brothers to study to find a good job. I don’t want them to become a garment worker like me.”

Cambodia averted strikes in July by increasing the monthly minimum wage in the industry by $5 to $61, far less than the $93 that some unions had demanded. Lingering dissatisfaction spurred last week’s walkout. Union leaders said more than 200,000 workers took part, but the number appeared to be more in line with the manufacturers’ estimate of 30,000.

The garment sector has been the main engine of Cambodia’s economic growth since the late 1990s, when the country stabilized politically after years of revolution and civil strife. Garments accounted for 70% of Cambodia’s exports in the first half of 2010, according to the government. Gap and Nike are among the major brands that have suppliers in Cambodia.

The garment and footwear industry employs about 350,000 people and supports an additional 1.6 million Cambodians through remittances sent home by workers, according to the United Nations. An estimated 60,000 textile jobs were lost during the global economic downturn in 2008 and 2009.

Garment workers’ wage dissatisfaction stems in part from job losses during the economic crisis, said Tuomo Poutiainen, the International Labor Organization’s chief technical advisor for its Better Factories Cambodia program. Their hardship was worsened by inflation, especially in food prices.

What’s overlooked, says Ken Loo, the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Assn. of Cambodia, is that factories are feeling the same squeeze. “Our costs have also risen because of inflation, but because of the bad economy, [retailers’] buying prices have gone down.”

The Cambodian garment industry has become more vulnerable to competition. It benefited in recent years from U.S. trade preferences predicated on assurances by the International Labor Organization of proper working conditions and from U.S. and European tariffs on garments from China and Vietnam. Those tariffs have been lifted.

Wage disputes in the region raise the risk of obscuring the fundamental driver of garment incomes, productivity, says Tep Mona, director of a nonprofit vocational training group, the Garment Industry Productivity Center, in Phnom Penh. She said that at most of the 70 factories where her group has conducted training in Cambodia, workers’ monthly salaries have risen above $110 because of performance bonuses.

Many factories have limited interest in paying for worker training, however, and uneducated workers intimidated by change also resist, she said.

[Published by the Los Angeles Times on September 19, 2010]