WASHINGTON — Factory owners and Western brands and retailers share responsibility in the events that led up to the deadly crackdown by the Cambodian government on apparel worker protests in January, according to a Workers Rights Consortium report released Tuesday.
In “Crackdown in Cambodia: Workers Seeking Higher Wages Meet Violent Repression,” the labor rights watchdog called on several U.S. and European companies producing apparel there to address the violence and to require that their factory owners increase the minimum wage paid to workers.
Cambodian government security forces opened fire on workers participating in a nationwide strike on Jan. 3, leading to five deaths and more than 30 people injured. Since the incident, the government has prohibited public gatherings or demonstrations by unions and workers. It has also detained 21 union leaders and workers involved in the protests.
While attributing the primary responsibility for the crackdown to the Cambodian government, the WRC charged that factory owners and Western companies are “deeply implicated in this violent campaign.”
“Neither the massive protests by workers in December nor the violent repression by security forces in January likely would have occurred had not Cambodian factory owners feared that by acceding to workers’ wage demands they would render themselves unable to meet pricing requirements of Western brands and retailers,” the report said.
The report charged that the “price squeeze” resulting from the demands of buyers prompted industry leaders to “support escalation and confrontation over a negotiated settlement between labor and management.”
A Cambodian task force found in December that the average garment worker spends $157 to $177 on basic necessities each month, prompting unions to push for a minimum wage of $160. But the Cambodian government ignored the findings and implemented a wage increase in two stages to $100 a month, prompting an industry shutdown that cost manufacturers millions of dollars in losses.
The WRC is calling on brands and retailers to require their supplier factories to pay workers a minimum of $160 a month and to lower their price demands on orders to make it feasible for factory owners to increase wages. The WRC also urged apparel companies to require factories to remedy recent acts of retaliation against protesting workers, including what it said was the termination of more than 70 employees. It also implored the Cambodian government to end its use of violence and to stop detaining workers involved in protests.
Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which has been working on behalf of companies the past few months on the minimum-wage issue in Cambodia, said Western brands and retailers have been heavily involved in discussions to resolve the dispute, establish a formal wage mechanism process and to cease the violence.
“Factory owners have been very outspoken in this process,” Herman said. “The buyers have also been very out front on this. We have been pushing hard to get everybody to work together with the Better Factories Cambodia ILO program.”
He called the report’s accusation that owners and buyers were “deeply implicated” in the government violence a “huge leap.”
“I think we’ve been very active and very publicly active on this issue, in trying to resolve the situation and move the ball forward to benefit workers and try to find a mechanism so we are not in this situation in the future,” Herman said.
Thirty international brands and retailers, including H&M, Gap, Levi Strauss & Co. and Marks & Spencer, sent an open letter on March 14 to the Cambodian deputy prime minister outlining their concerns. The companies called on the government to respect the rights of the 21 leaders and workers being detained, including allowing them to be present at all court hearings, to pass a trade union law to establish “effective industrial relations,” and to establish a new minimum wage mechanism.