More than 100,000 Cambodian factory workers refused to work overtime hours on Monday as they began the first phase of a campaign demanding a higher minimum wage and the release of 21 detained workers and activists, union leaders said.
The move comes ahead of a nationwide strike planned for next month under the second phase of the campaign led by 18 prominent labor unions and associations.
The overtime boycott is the first large-scale action taken by labor groups since a brutal crackdown on workers’ strikes in early January, when police shot dead five protesters and arrested the 21.
Employees at more than 200 factories—most of them in the garment industry, a key currency earner for Cambodia—have turned down overtime, organizers said.
Unions have called on them to keep up the move until the March 12 strike, unless authorities meet their demands to raise the minimum monthly wage to U.S. $160 and free the detainees.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the unions were calling on authorities to return to talks on raising the minimum wage.
“We are demanding that the government release the  activists and workers and drop all charges against them,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The government must resume minimum wage talks,” he said.
The minimum wage has been raised to U.S. $100 per month starting in February, following workers’ demands since late last year that it be doubled from U.S. $80 immediately.
Cambodia’s 300,000 textile workers often work long shifts for little pay in the garment factories, trade unions complain, saying the current minimum wage is too low to support a decent livelihood and that many factory workers rely on overtime pay and bonuses to cover their basic expenses.
A worker at a garment factory in Phnom Penh who participated in the overtime boycott Monday said she and her coworkers went home around 4:00 p.m., earlier than usual.
“I boycotted the overtime voluntarily,” she told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Before the Jan. 3 crackdown, workers’ strikes had shuttered hundreds of factories across the country, bringing Cambodia’s garment industry to a virtual standstill.
Rights groups condemned the clampdown, saying it was the worst state violence against civilians in the country in years.
The authorities also imposed a ban on public demonstrations, but activists tested the will of the authorities by holding small-scale protests.
Two others arrested with the 21 were released earlier this month.
The 21 are accused of causing intentional violence and damage to property in the demonstrations and have been refused bail.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government this month to ensure that garment factories stop intimidating and threatening workers seeking to form unions and assert their labor rights.
The government should cease banning public demonstrations and using security forces to disperse worker protests, and instead enforce the country’s labor laws, it said.