By Dene-Hern Chen
with contributions from Cheng Sokhorng
 on December 30, 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — As garment workers on Monday continued nationwide protests in Cambodia over a higher minimum wage, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting factories, refused to come to the negotiating table with independent unions.


Since the government said last Tuesday that the minimum wage for Cambodia’s garment workers would be increased by $15 to $95 a month in April, workers and unions have been holding mass demonstrations to protest the amount, which they contend should be $160 a month.

RELATED STORY: Nationwide Strikes Over Minimum Wage in Cambodia >>

As a result, garment factories across the nation have shuttered, bringing the $5 billion industry to a standstill. In a statement Monday, GMAC, the manufacturers association, accused six independent unions of destroying factory property, inciting workers to protest, and preventing the 600,000-strong workforce from going to work in the factories.


“[O]ur industry is unable to continue operations given the current situation,” the statement said, adding that GMAC would like a safety guarantee to factory properties and their workers before resuming work.


“All the six unions must be responsible for the destruction of the factories and manufacturers as well as the lost wages of the workers, their unemployment and the loss of investment,” it said.


GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng on Monday estimated that the industry loses $10 million to $15 million a day from the halt in operations, and he placed the blame entirely on the unions.


“Why should we attend [the meeting] when we are threatened by violence and we are without protection?” Sou Ieng said. “The worst is that the credibility of Cambodia as a supplier country will be affected. People might not want to continue to place orders in Cambodia because they are not sure if we can deliver.”


The Ministry of Labor on Monday ordered all workers and manufacturers to resume factory operations by Jan. 2, and said the minimum wage amount will remain at $95.


“[The protest] has seriously impacted the workers’ benefits and the state economy,” the ministry said. “Competent authorities will take measures seriously through the law to the people who still incite and cause problems to the employees and manufacturers.”


In a second statement released in the evening, the ministry ordered all unions to stop leading the nationwide strike immediately, warning them that legal action will be taken up against them.


Earlier in the day, thousands of workers gathered in front of the Ministry of Labor at the capital to protest before marching down traffic-congested Russian Boulevard. They were greeted by almost a thousand riot police officers who formed a human barricade around the government buildings that serve as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office. After a brief standoff between both sides, the officers pushed the workers down the block by marching forward and rapping their batons on their shields.


Pring Vannak, 28, who sported “We Need $160” stickers on her sun hat, remained unafraid of the officers. As a seamstress in the Best Tan Garment factory, Vannak said she takes home about $130 after working overtime.


“I will keep protesting until we get what we deserve,” she said. “If I don’t demand for my rights, who will do it for me?”


Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union — one of the six unions singled out in GMAC’s statement — reiterated that the unions are not mobilizing the workers.


“They are aware that they are being exploited by the companies so they are standing up for themselves,” he said. “We must all sit down to find the best solution for this conflict.”