Cambodian Garment Workers, Brands Mobilize Efforts to Improve Wages, Safety

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It was only a matter of time until the life-threatening issues surrounding worker safety and the garment industry spread to Cambodia, where just a few months ago a factory disaster claimed several lives.

The residual effects of recent tragedies in Bangladesh, the second-largest garment manufacturer behind China that saw over 100 killed in a 2012 factory fire and over 1,200 workers perish in the Rana Plaza collapse, have spread to other global economies, igniting protests over safety and fair wages. 

Protests erupted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec. 24 after the Ministry of Labor set the garment sector’s 2014 minimum wage at $95 per month, rather than the $160 unions wanted. When security forces opened fire Jan. 3 on a group of demonstrators, four people were killed, 37 injured, and another 23 detained in a prison for four hours.

Now, 30 global brands and several unions have joined the fight, signing a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking the Cambodian government to “address the rights of 23 people detained since deadly garment worker demonstrations on January 2 and 3 and the violation of citizens’ freedom of association,” according to the Phnom Penh Post. Government officials said they acted in the public’s interest and to protect the workers.[more]

Signatories to the letter include Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Bonmarche, C&A Europe, Debenhams, Esprit, Fifth and Pacific Companies, Gap, H&M, Inditex, IndustriALL Global Union, the International Trade Union Confederation, Levi Strauss & Co, Lululemon Athletica, Migros, N Brown Group, New Balance, New Look, Nike, Orsay, Primark, Puma, PVH, Tchibo, Tesco, The Jones Group, The Walt Disney Company, Under Armour, UNI Global Union and Walmart.

 “Violence and destruction of property are not legitimate tools of industrial action and punitive measure should be taken against the individuals who commit those acts,” the coalition states, referring to skirmishes that pitted rock-throwing garment workers against police with AK-47s. 

The letter to the Prime Minister also requests trade union law consistent with International Labor Organization standards, a new minimum wage-setting process, and a meeting with the Prime Minister on Feb. 3. An alliance of unions and labor activists estimates a living wage for garment workers at $283 a month.

Cambodia’s garment/textile industry value exceeded 80 percent of the country’s $5.5 billion (US) in exports last year. Add footwear brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma and the percentage rises to over 90 percent—a factor that deeply influences the urgency behind efforts to secure better pay and working conditions for workers. 

“Bangladesh brought back attention to the garment industry and sweatshop conditions,” said Lynda Yanz, executive director of the worker rights’ Maquila Solidarity Network. “But with Bangladesh we were dealing with such a life and death situation. Here in Cambodia we’re back to a totally fundamental issue and that is that of wages. Workers simply can not afford to live on the wages being paid. A whole sector is mobilizing.”

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