PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Regional labor union leaders gathered in Phnom Penh on Friday to denounce the Cambodian government’s apparent threats to the country’s independent unions and to highlight workers’ urgent need for higher wages.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The apparel industry, which generates more than $5 billion in exports and employs more than 500,000 workers, has been experiencing turmoil since the year began, opening with a nationwide strike held by protesting workers to demand higher wages. On Jan. 3, armed government security forces opened fire on rioting workers, leaving at least five dead and more than 30 workers injured.

Since the incident, the government has dispersed any public gatherings or demonstrations by unions and workers demanding a minimum wage higher than the current $100 a month. In addition, the country’s manufacturers have gone so far as to request for the Cambodian government to discontinue its role as a signatory country to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87, which guarantees workers rights to create, join and participate in unions.

These issues were the top concerns relayed by regional union affiliates — from Singapore, Fiji, the Philippines, South Korea and Sri Lanka — of the International Trade Union Confederation on Friday.

“The ILO has repeatedly reported that freedom of association is not respected, either in practice or by law, in Cambodia,” said Jotika Sharma, the assistant general secretary of Fiji Trade Union Congress, adding that she is concerned that the government has “repeatedly interfered to prevent workers from assembling peacefully.

“In my country, Fiji, which is now ruled by a military dictatorship, workers know very well what it is like to have no freedom of association,” she continued. “In this situation, workers have no voice; workers have no dignity at work. The government and the employers are simply free to do whatever they choose, in whatever conditions they want workers to be employed in.”

While union leaders lambasted lawsuits put forth by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting manufacturers, as “another means of harassing or intimidating” trade unions, they also called on clothing brands sourcing from Cambodia to do more than pen letters for change.

Most recently, on March 14, 30 international retailers — including Adidas, Gap and H&M — sent an open letter to the Cambodian government expressing concerns over the shrinking space for trade unions and freedom of association, as well as the continued detention of 21 union leaders and workers who were arrested during the January protests.

“However, the brands’ responsibility does not end with the letter,” said Mathi Yugarajah, vice president of the Ceylon Workers Congress in Sri Lanka. “They have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are respected throughout their supply chains. We therefore call on the brands to ensure that fundamental rights are respected in their factories.

“We also urge the brands to use their considerable leverage and follow through on previous statements to the government to respect freedom of association and to raise the minimum wage of the garment workers,” he added.

The Cambodian government is not blameless either, said Jeffrey Vogt, ITUC’s legal adviser, and should be primarily held responsible for the compensation of families of victims killed or injured during the Jan. 3 shooting.

“The government committed the killings; they committed the injuries. It is up to the government to provide that compensation,” Vogt said. “We are aware that the government has put together an investigation, but — as the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has recognized — there is a need for an independent investigation.”

Ken Loo, secretary general of GMAC, confirmed that the manufacturers have suggested excising Cambodia as a signatory to ILO Convention 87, and said that unions have abused their freedom of association in Cambodia.

“It has become extreme, and a lot of impunity has resulted from that,” Loo said. “Freedom of association does not give you a right to resort to violence, to destroying property.

“Buyers are leaving,” Loo claimed, though he declined to give an exact number of brands that have reduced or eliminated orders from Cambodia. “Buyers need stability, and this continued threat of a strike does nothing to instill confidence that there will be stability and that there is predictability in the industry of Cambodia.”

“[The letter sent by the 30 brands] means nothing. It’s just a general statement. They have to do it; it is a p.r. thing,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government can only “facilitate dialogue” between the employers and employees, and that the government is “still in the process of investigating” those responsible for the Jan. 3 shooting.

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