Bosses’ profit-driven disregard for workers’ lives killed three and injured 34 in two factory building collapses in Cambodia less than one week apart.
“We are not surprised when they cave in, they are jerry-built buildings that owners put little money in,” said Say Sokny, general secretary of the Free Trade Union of Workers in a May 21 phone interview from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The first factory collapse occurred May 16 about 30 miles south of Phnom Penh at the Taiwanese-owned Wing Star Shoes, which employs 7,000 workers and produces shoes for Asics. A mezzanine used for storage collapsed under weight it wasn’t designed to bear. Three workers were killed and 11 injured, although 50 were caught in the wreckage.
Yarn Neat, an assistant stock manager, told the Wall Street Journal that the floor had started shaking when she helped load materials into the mezzanine a week earlier and that she was afraid to walk under it. She had raised her concerns with superiors, who did nothing.
In March workers at Wing Star Shoes stopped work and blocked the main road for one hour, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Another 23 workers were injured during lunch May 20 as the shoddy building that housed the break room at Hong Kong-based Top World factory in Phnom Penh collapsed into a lake. The company produces for Swedish fashion giant H&M.
“Wages and health and safety are the most important issues for workers here,” Sokny said. “The working conditions are so bad that workers often faint on the shop floor because of heat, lack of ventilation, malnutrition, chemical exposure and long workdays.”
In January the Labor Ministry reported that more than 1,600 workers fainted at some 20 factories last year. The announcement came after the Free Trade Union gave the figure of 2,107 workers at 29 factories.
Strikes and other actions demanding wage raises and improved conditions are numerous. According to the FTU, some 85,000 workers at 101 factories were involved in strikes and other actions last year.
“It’s the only powerful tool we have,” Sokny explains. “We strike and do actions all the time. That’s the only way we can win anything.”
In December the Kingsland factory, which produces underwear for Walmart and H&M, closed and laid off workers without paying wages and severance. Starting Jan. 3 as many as 200 workers camped outside the plant in Phnom Penh to stop the company from moving machinery and other assets before workers were fully paid. On Feb. 27, 82 of the workers launched a hunger strike. Two days later Walmart and H&M agreed to a $200,000 settlement.
“We decided to go on a hunger strike to show that we are not workers who can be pushed around,” 26-year-old Sorn Sothy, a leader of the action, told Warehouse Workers United March 1. “We are strong, committed and united.”
On May Day garment workers marched to demand a raise in the monthly minimum wage from $80 to $150. The level is set by a Labor Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the government, employers and unions.
“It’s supposed to implement a raise every fourth year,” Sokny said. “But nothing happens unless workers go into action with strikes and other protests. That’s how we won the raise to $80 in March. We need a bigger raise. Workers are hungry. The wages are not enough to pay rent, food and what your family needs.”
On March 28 Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an instruction that workers must stop striking and protesting. But they have continued, including in two actions that demanded reinstatement of workers’ representatives fired by bosses. In one instance some 100 workers gathered outside a provincial police station, demanding the release of seven workers accused of inciting others to protest.
Sokny said the challenge is to win more long-term improvements in wages and working conditions. The vast majority of workers are on short-term contracts, mostly three months. Those who the bosses see as leaders or “troublemakers” don’t get new contracts. New workers are often brought in with contracts that reverse previously won gains.
Until the mid-1990s Cambodia had no garment industry. After an explosive development during the last two decades, the industry now employs 500,000 in more than 500 garment and shoe factories, with an average size of 1,000 workers. More than 90 percent moving into newly created industrial production centers are women from rural villages.
The garment sector accounts for 90 percent of Cambodia’s export income.