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The Politics of Clothing in Cambodia

By Adam Echelman

In Cambodia, the military rang in the New Year with old guns and a new direction. Garment workers had been shouting in the streets of Phnom Penh for more than a week, putting authorities on edge and devastating a billion dollar industry. By January 3, these protesters had moved to the Canadia Industrial Park—with the military close behind. What began as a typical strike had erupted into violence by late Friday night, starting a frenzy that would continue throughout the weekend. As of now, the tally rests at 27— four lay dead while 23 others remain in unknown detention centers, subject to torture and starvation in some of Cambodia’s most notorious prisons.

These riots highlight the stark reality of the Cambodian garment industry, which generates 70 percent of the country’s exports. Employing young rural woman, these factories manufacture cheap products for Western corporations like Puma, GAP, and Victoria Secret. While few are ready to endorse the military’s brutality, even fewer are ready to disrupt this multinational system of production. Both Cambodia and the West depend on such a balance. Yet the recent protests suggest an uncertain reality ahead. As stones turn into iron bars and AK-47s, it appears that Cambodia may be ready for change.

This tension has been building for months now. While close to 400,000 Cambodians work in the garment industry, unions have been unable to ameliorate the life of the average employee. Indeed, Western demands and national politics have prevented anyone from adequately addressing the sweatshop conditions and notoriously low wages that these factories maintain.  The Phnomn Penh Press reported last year that over 200 women fainted in the Chim Ly garment factory. In January 2012, 60 women collapsed after inhaling paint fumes in the King First Industrial Co. Ltd. Garment factory.

While these protests are nothing new, the size of the movement and the military’s violence make 2014 unprecedented. Speaking on the phone, former Minister of Information Chhang Song notes, “There have been other large uprisings—1998 being the most notable—but nothing was as widespread as it is now." Though some might argue that strikes of this magnitude were inevitable, there must have been a catalyst. But what is fueling this fervor?

Ostensibly, it’s the minimum wage. These New Year’s protesters have only one request: increase the minimum wage immediately from US $80/month to a more manageable US $160/month.

“It is a structural issue; the current salary rate for the workers does not reflect the increasing living cost driven by inflation,” says Dr. Vannarith Chheang, Professor and Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. The current minimum wage can only support the most modest budget for a single person, one that allows for the most basic necessities. In order to live within such means, workers live in crowded dormitories, eating only the cheapest street food. Perhaps, then, inflation has finally reached a point where garment workers must rebel in order to eat; feeding a family on US $80/month may very well be impossible.

However, such an interpretation is one-sided: in fact, these recent protests might have very little to do with the garment industry at all. Early this year, opposition leader Sam Raimsey returned from exile to lead the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in opposing the long-standing prime minister, Hun Sen, who has lead Cambodia since the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. While Raimsey lost the election, his party won a sizable victory in the National Assembly, gaining 29 seats and leaving the legislature nearly split.  Yet the CNRP is far from satisfied. Since the July election, Raimsey and his party have been gathering supporters—up to 60,000 protesters—calling on Hun Sen to resign and accusing the current leader of voting fraud. It is the largest threat to Sen’s power in more than 15 years.

Raimsey, rather strategically, has fused his political agenda with that of the garment workers. While the party has collaborated with the working class for years now, the July election has caused to CNRP to align itself closer to the workers’ plight than ever before. The CNRP released a statement this December: “If the minimum wage is not raised to $160 immediately, rising food prices and living expenses will make it impossible for garment workers to address their basic needs.”

On Saturday January 4, Hun Sen responded to the deaths and arrests of garment workers by strengthening the military presence throughout the city, adding new security checkpoints near the factories, and, more importantly, removing political protesters from their camp in Freedom Park. Why does Hun Sen need to quell his political opposition after the deaths and incarceration of a few, poor garment workers? To the ruling government, the CNRP and the factory workers are one and the same.

According to Chhang Song, the opposition is “exploiting and manipulating the garment workers. I saw a man [a CNRP supporter] calling the workers, almost forcing the workers out, urging them to demonstrate.”

By linking their agenda with the garment workers’ plight, the opposition party has created the publicity and anger necessary to pursue its true goal: ousting current Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Vannarith Chheang notes, “Since the last July election, the opposition party has gained more political ground in challenging the ruling CPP [Cambodia People’s Party]. The opposition is trying to maintain such momentum by orchestrating mass street protests.”

These “mass street protests” are pulling together all facets of Cambodian society: embittered garment workers, political rivals, and poor farmers. As a result, the CNRP has become more powerful, but with more diverse constituents, their political agenda is quickly losing focus. Locals accuse Raimsey of being “all talk.” His platform is negative rather than constructive: the CNRP opposes everything the current government stands for. Critics charge that the opposition is not actually concerned with the lives of garment workers; instead, they are using the issue of the minimum wage to inflame and enlarge their constituency.

Major media outlets have not drawn the same conclusion. They seem to support the CNRP and the garment workers, portraying the recent protests as an authentic, popular uprising. In a recent feature in Al-Jazeera, Kevin Doyle writes: “Hun Sen, 61, has ruled Cambodia for close to 30 years, but now he faces the first real test of his strength in a decade and a half. Hun Sen is face-to-face with a challenger of a very different kind—people power.”

The BBC echoes this sentiment in a press release from January 3, 2014. “The [garment] workers are demanding a minimum wage of US $160 (£97) a month. The government has offered an increase to around US $100 (£60).”

On December 24, unions and government officials, responding to protester’s demands, decided the minimum wage would change immediately  to approximately US $100 and then increase periodically to US $160 by 2018. The garment workers are demanding an immediate increase of the minimum wage; they are protesting the government’s incremental approach.  

However, a slow transition to the US $160 minimum wage is the best possible option for the workers. If the government immediately doubles the minimum wage, it is likely that most foreign companies will relocate to find cheaper labor, leaving these already struggling workers jobless. By advocating for an immediate doubling of the minimum wage, the protesters are, to some degree, pushing for their own unemployment. The CNRP has manipulated the garment workers to such an extent that they are working against their own self-interest. If the opposition is truly involved in the betterment of the factory workers’ lives, it would advocate for an increase in the minimum wage that would keep foreign businesses in Cambodia.

Still, the CNRP is not entirely at fault. Neither party is really acting in the interest of the garment workers. The current government allowed the factories to reach these deplorable conditions, while the opposition (CNRP)—although seemingly progressive—is equally as one-sided, goading the garment workers on and promising unrealistic economic change.

Western media likes to view the Cambodian government as a despotic corrupt regime; in our society, it’s heartening to read how the poor workers deride a long-standing, elitist regime. Hun Sen has a long record of human rights violations, making it easy to paint him as the archetypal self-destructive and self-interested Southeast Asian politician. However, these assumptions often ignore the subtleties of the regional politics. These protests are not a popular uprising at all, but rather a carefully crafted political conflict between the CNRP and the current government. While it may not bring cheer to the New Year, these protests highlight the nuances in Cambodian politics and culture.

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Adam Echelman is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Seang Sopheak]

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