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

Corporate Social Responsibility is about more than ad hoc charitable acts; it’s about human rights.

Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) is a relatively modern term, first coined by American economist Howard Bowen in 1953, in a book entitled Social Responsibility of Businessmen. Bowen considered the roles and responsibilities of businesses in society, and posed the question: What responsibilities to society may business people reasonably be expected to assume? The development and recognition of the concept has spread globally since then.

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Banks, Human Rights and the Equator Principles

In January 2014 the press in Cambodia and Australia released a number of articles concerning the role of the ANZ Royal Bank in financing the activities of the Phnom Penh Sugar Company (“PPS”), which owns and operates a highly controversial sugar plantation and refinery in Kampong Speu Province, Cambodia. In February 2010, PPS began illegally seizing and bulldozing farm and residential land belonging to more than 1,500 families in the Thpong and Oral districts in the Kampong Spue province. An estimated 100 families in Pis and Plourch villages were forcibly evicted from their homes. As a result the families are faced with food insecurity, job insecurity and homelessness and many had to pull their children out from school to work for PPS as it was the only source of income available. The Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. (“ANZ”) is a major controlling entity of ANZ Royal Bank and one of the signatories to the Equator Principles (“EPs). Many consider that ANZ acted contrary to the guidelines contained in the EPs thereby facilitating the human rights abuses committed by PPS.

Put simply the EPs are a set of guidelines developed by major financial institutions (over 80 major financial institutions in 34 countries) in 2003 and revised in June 2013 (EP III) which aim to assist them in making better lending decisions in regards to the environment and society. The aim of the EPs is to put checks and balances in place so that financiers can refuse to finance projects, which could negatively impact human rights and the environment.

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Stitching & Suffering in Cambodia’s Garment Industry

In Cambodia’s garment factories, workers – 90% of whom are women – faint en masse alarmingly regularly, a phenomenon that highlights harsh working conditions. Yet despite advocacy efforts from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), little improvement has taken place. So what exactly are the working conditions like and what can be done to improve the situation?

The garment industry is central to Cambodia’s economy, providing jobs to approximately 475,000 people. Working in a garment factory is often a sought-after position for many women who hope to earn a better wage than what they can expect for in rural areas.

Prior to January 2014, the monthly minimum salary for garment factory workers was $80 USD, which hardly represented one fifth of what the Asia Floor Wage calculates to be a living wage in Cambodia. After months of failed negotiations with factory owners, in December 2013, Cambodian unions called for national strikes demanding a wage increase to $160 USD per month.

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UN Special Rapporteur tells it like it is

On the 24th of June representatives from CCHR attended the press conference held by Professor Surya P. Subedi, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, at the end of his most recent visit to Cambodia. As a United Nations Special Rapporteur, his role is to visit Cambodia twice a year to investigate the current human rights situation, and then report back to the UN Human Rights Council on his findings. Even though he is described as the “United Nations” Special Rapporteur, Professor Subedi is not employed by the UN, the idea being that he is able to offer an independent assessment and perspective as a result of his visits.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia’s press conference

The press conference was an initial summary of the result of his visit (full statement here in English and Khmer) and Professor Subedi will present a formal report to the UN in September. This was his 11th visit to the country in this role, so he was able to talk broadly about the human rights situation in Cambodia. Some of it was positive, but for the most part he was very concerned with what he found. Professor Subedi covered a broad range of human rights issues, from land and labor rights to access to democratic spaces, to reform of the judiciary, constitution, electoral and parliamentary frameworks, and other governance institutions.

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