Protests over the minimum wage for Cambodia’s 500,000 garment workers turned deadly on Friday, as police in Phnom Penh fired into a crowd of striking workers and killed at least four people.
In a country with annual gross domestic product of $14 billion, Cambodia’s $5 billion garment industry is a significant and growing sector of the economy. The industry in Cambodia has benefited from the rise in wages in China. That development has given manufacturers a reason to set up shop elsewhere in Asia in search of cheaper labor. But as Cambodia’s textile industry has grown rapidly in recent years, so too have workers’ expectations. Now labor unrest has broken out.
Tens of thousands of Cambodia’s garment workers began to strike on Dec. 24, calling for the minimum monthly wage to be raised to $160—roughly double the current minimum wage and $60 higher than the amount proposed by the government. Workers told VOA News that inflation has eaten up their earnings, making it difficult to pay for rent, groceries, and other necessities even with overtime wages.
Factories in Cambodia have been closed all week as strikes have continued, led by labor leaders allied with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), an opposition political party. The wage debate has become a flashpoint in outcries against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985. The CPP has governed Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown in 1979, but recent election results have been disputed with accusations of widespread voter fraud.
The textile industry is Cambodia’s largest employer, and revenue soared 22 percent in the first 11 months of 2013 over the same period last year. But 2013 has also seen 131 strikes involving some or all of Cambodia’s 559 textile factories, which manufacture clothing and footwear for brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Gap. A representative of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia estimated that idled factories could be losing up to $30,000 a day.
The government ordered workers back to work on Thursday, but protesters refused until their wage demands are met. That’s when the previously peaceful dispute turned violent, as the government ordered the military police onto the streets of Phnom Penh to dispel striking workers.
Witnesses told the BBC that military police used force against striking workers on Thursday, but no deaths were reported. On Friday, police fired into a crowd and killed at least four people. As of Friday evening, thousands of protesters remain on the streets of Cambodia’s restive capital.
At stake in the ongoing dispute is the fate of an industry essential to Cambodia’s economy—and the authority of Asia’s longest-serving leader.