Karapatan expresses solidarity with Cambodian workers

KARAPATAN Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights – Philippines strongly condemns the violence inflicted by the Cambodian armed forces against protesting workers in Cambodia. Years of exploitation of the workers through sub-standard working conditions and untenable minimum wages have pushed the Cambodian workers to exercise their legitimate right to strike and peacefully express their demands through the protests. Karapatan likewise condemns the prodding and support of foreign governments, such as the South Korean government, and corporations for the exercise and use of lethal force by the Cambodian government against its citizens. The brute force being used by the Cambodian government to quell the legitimate actions by workers violates the rights of the workers as enshrined in international human rights conventions.

According to Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO and news reports, on 2 – 3 January 2014, Cambodian security forces killed 4 protesters, wounded 21, and arrested and detained 23 protesters outside the Canadia Industrial Park. The following day, the Cambodian police forcibly cleared Freedom Park – a government-designated park for people to raise their grievances. On the 6th January, women activists who were demanding the release of the protesters were also arrested and were only released when they signed a statement, under duress, that they would not protest again. Union organizers and human rights activists are now facing trumped up charges and 18 months of pre-trial detention, 5 years’ imprisonment and fines ranging from US$1,000 to US$2,500 for exercising their right to demand for better working conditions and living wages for Cambodian workers. 

Garment workers are protesting the minimum wage, which was set at US$80 per month (or US$2.70/day), and are demanding that it be raised to US$160 per month (or US$5.30/day). This amount is consistent with recommendations by the Cambodian Government appointed Labor Advisory Committee Survey Working Group for a minimum wage between $157-$177 from a study. Garment manufacturing is Cambodia's biggest foreign currency earner and a major employer of more than 700,000 workers.  The killing and arrest of protesters indicate the increasing repressive measures and character of the Cambodian government against the garment workers who are exercising their right to freedom of association and right to organize, as recognized in the International Labor Organization Convention No. 87 ratified by Cambodia. The right to form trade unions and strike is also protected in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR). Striking workers in Cambodia are routinely fired or disciplined by factories for protesting low wages and working conditions. In 2013, more than 700 striking workers at a Singapore-owned SL Garment Processing factory which supplies H&M and GAP, among others, were fired, while 5000 other workers were suspended. Clearly, the recent violence against protesters is an escalation of an already repressive environment for the workers. 

Other foreign governments and corporations have also become involved in an effort to protect their corporate interests in the garment industry in the country. The South Korean Embassy in Cambodia asked the Cambodian security forces to exert “special protection” for Korean factories at the Canadia Industrial Park, a Special Economic Zone, including the South-Korean – American company Yakjin, which supplies Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle, and Wal-Mart,and emphasized the need for the Cambodian government to take “decisive action.” The Canadia Industrial Park was the same site where the killing of activists took place on 3 January. Yakjin trading Company was bought out by Carlyle, an American private equity fund giant (whose board members include George W. Bush Sr.), a week before the corporation also requested Cambodian Army intervention on 3 January, which resulted to the killing of four workers.

The protests in Cambodia coincide with the garment workers protests in Bangladesh who have also been demanding a raise in the minimum wage from US$38 per month to US$100 per month and for humane working conditions, -- legitimate demands of the workers which were highlighted since the collapse of a garment factory in April 2013 killing 112 people. 

In the Philippines the minimum wage is set at US$250 per month (US$11 per day). Although higher than Cambodia and Bangladesh, it is still below the necessary living standard. IBON Foundation calculates that a living wage for a family of 6 is US$23 per day nearly twice the current minimum wage. Factory conditions are sub-standard and workers are increasingly contractualized. Repressive measures are taken against workers who try to form unions or take collective action for their rights.

Workers’ wages across Asia are being depressed by big global corporations seeking higher profits at the expense of workers’ basic human rights. Attempts to raise the minimum wage are faced with threats to relocate factories where wages are lower and governments are pressured to ignore or actively repress workers’ conditions by corporations and governments, especially imperialist regimes. Since the global financial crisis, economic instability and threats of unemployment have been used as a pretextto further degrade working conditions and wages. 

KARAPATAN condemns the blatant disregard for workers’ labor rights being replicated across Asia and the increasing repression of workers’ freedom to organize to claim their rights and protest against inhuman working conditions and wages.  

KARAPATAN stands in solidarity with the Cambodian workers and human rights activists, as we join people’s organizations, trade unions and human rights organizations all over the world in calling for the following:

  1. The minimum wage to be raised to US$160 per month as per the workers’ demands;
  2. Drop all charges and release all protesters and human rights defenders who were arbitrarily detained during the protests;
  3. For the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to urge the ASEAN member states to respect and protect the rights of workers in the ASEAN region, according to international human rights standards;
  4. For the Philippine Government to condemn the repression of workers in Cambodia and to respect and protect the rights of workers in the Philippines, in the ASEAN and worldwide, by adhering to international human rights standards.