By Dene-Hern Chen
with contributions from Cheng Sokhorng
 on February 19, 2014

A delegation representing 30 international brands and global trade unions met with Cambodia’s deputy prime minister on Wednesday to express their concerns about the country’s security forces opening fire on garment workers to quell a Jan. 3 demonstration.

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A protest for higher wages early last month descended into violence when security forces fired live ammunition at the rioting workers, leaving at least four dead and more than 30 injured. Two weeks after the incident, 30 international brands — including Gap, Puma and H&M — and three global trade unions (IndustriALL, International Trade Union Confederation and UNI Global Union) requested a meeting with the government.

According to a joint statement released Wednesday by the brands and trade unions, the meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and other government officials was “open and frank.” It included discussion of implementing a trade union law and a wage-setting process that is “methodologically sound and inclusive.”

“There was recognition of the need for this to be thorough and to be put in place as a matter of urgency to support industrial peace,” the statement said, adding that stable conditions allow brands the ability to plan and invest in Cambodia.

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The statement also stressed that all efforts must be made “to avoid any repeat of the violence against workers,” and that workers who were detained during the protests must be afforded due process, speedy bail and any necessary medical treatment.

Another meeting between both parties is planned for May, the statement said.

For the government’s part, this meeting was a way for it to clear the air.

“The buyers now understand that both government and buyers are all in the same boat,” said a statement released by the government late Wednesday. “The delegation for buyers and international unions expressed their concerns about the violent strikes and the destruction of factory property, which is not according to the law.”

The government made no mention of its role in the shooting. In the aftermath of the violent crackdown, the Cambodian government has continuously justified its actions by saying it was necessary to maintain order.

Cambodia’s garment industry exports more than $5 billion to major global brands, including H&M, Gap, Puma, Adidas, Nike and Marks & Spencer.

When the government on Dec. 24 set a minimum wage increase to $95 a month from $80, workers and unions responded by launching a nationwide strike to push for $160 a month — an amount they believe would meet Phnom Penh’s rising living expenses. Despite a $5 concession from the government to bring the wage up to $100 a month, the workers continued protesting on the streets and in industrial zones by the thousands.

Things came to a head on Jan. 3 when security forces opened fire on the rioting workers.

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