Two Years Since Ruthless Crackdown of Garment Worker Demonstrations – What Has Changed?

Last Sunday marked the second anniversary of the deadly crackdown of a garment worker protest by military police in Phnom Penh, although it appears that little has changed in terms of the treatment of factory workers in Cambodia or the authorities’ response to demonstrations which remains as ruthless as ever.

The crackdown of the demonstration on 03 January 2014 occurred in Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park, killing five people and leaving over 30 others injured. These protests were part of a wider ongoing national strike in response to the failure of the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Advisory Committee to adequately raise the minimum wage beyond $95, as unions had requested. The authorities’ response to the discontent was ruthless, using a clearly disproportionate degree of violence in order to disperse the protestors. Initially the police broke up the demonstration beating people with batons before a larger cohort of military police armed with automatic weapons arrived, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. This use of live ammunition on garment workers was particularly shocking and drew the outright condemnation from several domestic and international groups, and even international buyers.

Unfortunately the events of two years ago cannot be viewed as isolated events since continued demonstrations and violent official reactions suggest that little has changed. On the day of the second anniversary, a crowd of around 300 union members and factory workers gathered to commemorate the incident but this demonstration was also broken up by riot police. Despite the failure to prosecute those responsible for the killing of the five garment workers two years ago, the police arrested and sentenced activists involved in the demonstrations, and continue to arrest those that dare to demand better working conditions by exercising their fundamental right to freedom of assembly. The lack of an effective investigation into the use of deadly force two years ago is demonstrative of the pervading culture of impunity that stifles any legitimate dissent and undermines the rule of law in Cambodia.

The continued use of force to respond to any form of protest constitutes a major violation of the human rights of an already economically and politically marginalized and exploited sector of society. As well as allowing impunity for the state’s security personnel in their disproportionate use of deadly force, the failure to respect the human rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest is deeply troubling and constitutes breaches of ­­­Article 37 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is recognized in Cambodian law. Together with this serious infringement of core human rights, there has been very little progress in the improvement of the working conditions or wages in the garment sector. Due to the major significance of the garment industry for the Cambodian economy and fears that increased wages would make Cambodia less attractive to the multinational garment manufacturers, the government and local factory owners have staunchly refused to raise the minimum wage to the levels demanded by the unions. The unions have had some success in negotiating an increase in the monthly minimum wage with the 2016 wage being set at $140, although this still falls well short of the union demands of $160. The minimum wage therefore remains at an unsatisfactory level.

Two years after the deadly protests that drew the world’s attention to the plight of Cambodia’s garment workers, the situation remains much the same. The garment sector continues to be plagued by a myriad of human rights violations, and workers are denied the freedom to protest against their terrible working conditions or low wages due to the threat of lethal police force for which the perpetrators enjoy impunity. While the State certainly has a duty to protect human rights, the garment factories and international buyers also have a responsibility to ensure the rights of Cambodia’s garment workers are respected, as per the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Although cheap labor may be attractive for the likes of GAP and H&M, perhaps fair working conditions, respect for fundamental human rights and freedom from deadly violence would be a more attractive situation for all of those involved in the long term.

Georges Rouillon, CCHR International Intern

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