The Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) won an important victory prior to this year’s May Day celebrations. By threatening a nearly country-wide garment worker strike, the union forced the Garment Manufacturer’s Association of Cambodia (GMAC), to acquiesce and offer a $6 per month wage increase to workers. The GMAC originally appeared inclined to weather the strike and made no concessions.
However, in the last few days before the strike was to begin, the alliance of government officials and factory owners began to crack. This is an election year and the prospect of massive strikes and street demonstrations worried officials more than the notion that their factory-owning friends might make slightly less money.
By March 26, Prime Minister Hun Sen had written a letter to four government ministries, asking them to ‘consider’ the wage increase demand. That same night, GMAC broke ranks entirely. Not only did it agree to the wage request, they offered $6, one dollar more than was demanded by the union. The reasons for this extra dollar remain somewhat unclear. FTUWKC’s officials have not yet responded to the Industrial Worker for clarification.
The strike ended the same day that it began. As the strike was called off at the last minute, with so little time between the GMAC’s offer and the beginning of the long-scheduled strike, as many as 24 factories struck anyway. The president of the FTUWKC, Chea Mony, spent March 27 notifying workers to hold off on the strike, in response to the offer. While GMAC seized the opportunity to criticize the workers and the union, the agreement appears to remain in force.
Previously, the FTUWKC has coordinated large strikes to push for wage increases in 2004 and 2006, each time achieving an increase of US$5 per month. In 2008, the demand was an additional $5 per month, bringing the monthly wage to $55 without overtime. Other demands included an end to seniority wage increase caps, which previously were cut off after only five years.
Reports on the agreement continue to emerge, but it appears that Cambodian garment workers have achieved another crucial victory in the ongoing fight for control over work, profits, and wages. Cambodia’s garment industry is the sixth largest national garment exporter in the world, approximately 90 percent of which is shipped to the United States.
Poverty, hunger, and oppression are the norm for many garment workers, as it is for Cambodians more generally. One-third of Cambodia’s 13 million people live on less than a dollar a day. The FTUWKC was founded in 1999, and has established itself as the largest and most militant union in Cambodia. Three organizers from the union, including the union president and the presidents of two locals, have been assassinated since 2004.