Have you ever been clothes shopping and saw a stunning new jacket for a bargain price of €60 and thought to yourself ‘I wonder how much the person who made this jacket gets paid?’ Realistically probably not, it may have dawned on you once or twice but it is only a brief thought. In Cambodia the wage for a garment factory worker is $95 a month. Yes, $95 USD a MONTH. The majority of these garment factory workers are female. With this monthly wage they have to support their families with food, shelter, healthcare and education. Could you do it?
Right now in Cambodia these garment workers are striking for better monthly wages. The people who make the clothes you wear are looking for a fairer wages. However, the current ruling government party, the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen (61) has other ideas. Rallies by workers have been suppressed with batons, electric cattle prods, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition. So far the death toll from these protests stands at four dead, 30 injured and 23 detained/kidnapped.
Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Debenhams, Esprit, H&M, New Look, Nike, Primark, Puma, Tesco and Under Armour are just some of the companies that sub-contract the factories that employ these exploited workers. The workers unions are looking for a wage increase to $160. The Ministry of Labour set the wage at $100 per month after protests on the 24th of December. Meeting this wage of $160 a month wouldn’t price the multinationals out of Cambodia. This wage is still competitive with China ($141) and the Philippines ($177). The problem, according to experts is not just the increase in monthly wage, but that this wage increase may lead to future expectations that are unsupportable. Part of the problem is that these workers unions are corrupt themselves. Union leaders are being treated to all expenses paid training workshops in Paris. The government pays off the union leaders instead of paying the workers. When the workers unions don’t do their job, the people take to the street.
According to the International Labour Organisation, Cambodia’s garment stitching is the country’s largest industrial sector. Employing 400,000 workers and accounting for $5 billion in annual exports, 35 percent of GDP. All these exported clothes make it to the retail stores in Europe and the US. Consumers are usually unaware of these protest situations because of minimal media coverage on these issues. Instead of hearing about an unarmed female food vendor being shot in the chest with an AK-47 in Cambodia, we are informed that Justin Bieber has been arrested for drunk driving. Where do Western priorities lie when it comes to important current affairs?
Cambodia has a devastating history. The US bombing of the country as part of the US-Vietnam War from 1969-1973, the American bombers dropped more bombs by tonnage into Cambodia, than all of the Allied Forces combined during World War II. The hyper-communist Khmer Rouge regime ultimately followed from 1975-1979. This extremely violent rule was led by the infamous Pol Pot who initiated Year Zero. The entire population was banished to the countryside to work in the rice farms. Any person that was in anyway educated or who worked for the government was executed. By 1979 nearly 2 million people had died from starvation, forced labour and killings.
The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander who defected to help lead an invading Vietnamese-installed government that ran Cambodia from 1979 until the late 1980s. Hun Sen has since controlled Cambodia for 28 years.
In recent times we have seen Middle Eastern leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak deposed during the Arab Spring. When asked if he may fall similarly to the Arab Spring dictators in 2011, he strongly responded, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead…and if anyone is strong enough to hold a demonstration, I will beat those dogs and put them in a cage.”
Just 12 hours before I sat down to write this article, violence erupted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Riot police prevented demonstrators from entering Freedom Park, where they intended to protest against low wages and the continued detention of 23 people.
It is clear that the people of Cambodia are not happy with the current political climate, especially after a national election that was marred by extraordinary voting irregularities. The people continue to take to the streets looking for justice. Here, they are being met by the cold hard fist of the Cambodian government in the form of batons, electric cattle prods and in some cases, live bullets.
No one knows when blood will stop staining the streets of Phnom Penh. One thing is assured; it is the blood of the vulnerable members of Cambodian society, the people looking for fairer wages, whom make the clothes that we wear.