Seven global clothing brands, including H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss & Co., roundly condemned the government’s use of security forces on protesting workers in an open letter Tuesday and urged all sides to return to the negotiating table to discuss a minimum wage raise.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia — which represents the country’s exporting factories — and six major trade unions, the letter expressed “deep felt concern over the tragic events that took place on Jan. 3.”
On Friday, government security forces opened fire on thousands of rioting workers in a Phnom Penh industrial park, leaving at least four dead and more than 30 people injured. This lethal show of force followed more than a week of nationwide demonstrations by workers protesting for a minimum wage increase.
“It is with great concern that we have observed both the widespread civil unrest and the government’s use of deadly force,” the letter said. “Our primary concerns are for the security and safety of the workers employed by our suppliers and the long-term stability of the Cambodian garment industry.”
The letter was signed by Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability of Swedish retail giant H&M; Kindley Walsh-Lawlor, vice president of Gap Inc.’s social and environmental responsibility department; Felix Poza, CSR global director for Inditex, the Spanish multinational clothing company that owns Zara, and Michael Kobori, vice president for Levi Strauss & Co.’s sustainability department.
Executives from three other sportswear companies also threw their weight behind the call for action: William Anderson, vice president of social and environmental affairs in Asia-Pacific for Adidas Group; Reiner Hengstmann, global director for Puma’s SAFE supply chain, and Abel Navarrete, director of corporate responsibility and product safety for Columbia Sportswear Co.
All seven brands urged the government, the manufacturers and the trade unions to “immediately join negotiations, in good faith, to swiftly and peacefully resolve this dispute,” and to endorse a mechanism that would lead to regular wage discussions in the future.
The government had initially offered $95 a month on Dec. 24, a $15 increase from the current wage, but workers rallied behind union leaders calling for an increase to $160 a month. The government has since made a concession and raised the amount to $100 a month, which workers still believe is not enough.
After Friday’s events, security forces heavily patrolled the scene of the protests, and City Hall announced that public demonstrations or gatherings would no longer be tolerated — a move that drew condemnation from international and local rights groups.
Dave Welsh, country head of the Solidarity Center — a labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO — said the open letter should have addressed the threats the government has imposed on trade unions, as well as criticized GMAC’s callous responses to the deaths.
Welsh added that there are currently more than 20 workers who have been imprisoned during these protests, and that their lawyers — afforded to them by the Solidarity Center and two other local rights groups — have no clue about their locations or conditions.
“There has to be a robust response to what is a really chilling effect on trade union rights in Cambodia,” Welsh said. “All of this is something that is not in the spirit of promoting trade union rights or the freedom of association. The louder the brands can speak up about this, the better.”
Van Sou Ieng, chairman of GMAC, said the brands are “listening to only one story,” and challenged them to show their commitment by continuing to place orders in Cambodia despite the industrial action and to increase their buying price by 15 percent to address the wage raise instated earlier in May, from $65 to $80.
“I ask them to place orders in Cambodia now as much as last year, even more in fact — that is my first challenge,” Sou Ieng said. “The other challenge is to increase the buying price because we have already increased the wage this year.”
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