“Two handcuffs” and no respite for garment workers

This was cross-posted to my own professional blog.

International outrage was sparked last with news of a massive factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the aid blogosphere spent months breaking down the

Photo credit: AP

Photo credit: AP

disaster and examining the fallout from it. Now, it seems that (though perhaps less of) our attention has been drawn again to the plight of garment workers – this time in Cambodia, where a large-scale protest was recently put down by force by the prime minister’s “private military.”

Why exactly the prime minister has a “private military” is a whole other issue that should be raising alarm, but perhaps beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

On Christmas Eve, a group of garment workers took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest the Labour Ministry’s raise of the country’s minimum wage by a paltry fifteen cents.

In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator of the Workers’ Information Centre (WIC), which helps factory workers organise, told IPS workers cannot survive on the government’s proposed wage, and that it is in violation of Cambodia’s labour laws.

According to a 1997 law, “The minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity.”

The military stepped in the night of Jan. 2, brutally beating and arresting labour leaders and protesting monks. Pictures of the bloodied trade unionists were widely shared on social media, which seems to be the point when the protests veered out of control.

By the early hours of Friday Jan. 3, young men allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails and machetes had replaced the women protesters. Hun Sen’s private military stormed the scene with live ammunition, shooting over 30 people, killing five and seriously injuring the rest.

Activists interviewed for the above-quoted article argue that the country’s current minimum way isn’t enough to scrape by an even sub-standard living without going into debt. “‘The minimum is for eight hours, so most work 10 hours to get a higher income to have just enough to sleep in a shared room. Most workers are in debt, borrowing about 50 dollars each month, and can only pay 10 dollars interest on the loan each month.’ Workers struggle to send money home to their families in the countryside.” Adding insult to injury is the fact that most laborers have to sign short-term contracts, which allows their employers to replace them easily if they get sick or have to take time off for the birth of a child. The result is “two handcuffs” – a low wage and no job security.

International media coverage is peppered with stories and commentary about the protest and its violent suppression, but the ongoing problems in Bangladesh’s garment industry are a handy reminder of how quickly we forget (no pun intended) our outrage. Even after Walmart cut off its business dealings with the guilty company and Congress tried (and failed) to do something about it, practically no is paying attention to the fact that garment factories catch fire every week. South Korea’s subtle encouragement of the crackdown in Cambodia is also a painful reminder that too often corporate interests – rather than a decent wage and safe working conditions – too often dictate our approach to the workers who stitch the clothes on our backs.

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