Garment Worker Advocates Condemn Rise In Detentions In Cambodia

Two Cambodian youths are facing 11 years in prison for throwing rocks at police during one of the country’s recent clashes between security forces and workers who make clothes carried by some of the largest Western retail outlets, including major buyers like The Gap Inc. (NYSE:GAP), Hennes & Mauritz AB (STO:HM-B) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT).
Vanny Vannan, believed to be 18 or 19, and Meas Nun, a minor who works collecting scrap metal on the streets of Phnom Penh, are scheduled to have their verdict read before a judge on May 30. Meas is developmentally disabled, while Vanny was wrongfully arrested, human rights activists have said.
“The Cambodian authorities should be prosecuting the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces instead of trying to convict a misidentified young man and a teenage boy with a disability,” Brad Abrams, Asia director of Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement published on the group's website on Sunday.
The two youths have become the international focus of a rash of recent violent confrontations between angry garment industry workers and their supporters. The workers say they need to be paid higher than the current $68 a month minimum wage and require better working conditions and benefits. The issue echoes similar problems happening 1,800 miles to the northwest of Phnom Penh in Bangladesh, which has been in the media spotlight for more than a year over its dangerous garment factories.
Cambodia, where 11 labor activist have been detained over the past month, nine of them last week, has been facing a rise in labor unrest since November, when soldiers opened fire with machine guns on protesters during a nationwide strike, killing a rice-selling bystander and injuring 20 others. The 11 facing charges join at least 21 individuals who've been arrested since January, not including the two youths facing prison.
Ath Thorn, head of a local apparel workers union, and another union member were charged with inciting violence during a protest last month against SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd., which supplies garments to companies including Banana Republic and the Gap. A judge slapped the two with $25,000 in bail, a princely sum in a country where the average annual income is $750.
In a separate incident, three union representatives in Kandal province were arrested Friday amid a strike involving about 4,000 workers of Quint Major Industrial Co. Ltd., a maker and supplier of pants, jackets and sportswear. The walkout occurred April 22, and recently hundreds of Quint workers have started picketing the company facilities.
“They were protesting to demand workers receive a base wage of $160 [a month] and better working conditions,” Sok Ravuth, president of the Free Union Federation of Khmer Labour, told The Phnom Penh Post in a report published on Tuesday.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, the main trade group for the employers, accuses the demonstrators of violent tactics and has posted on its website a collage of videos making its case.  
In another recent incident, six union workers were detained by authorities during a strike against Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd. factory, which was targeted this month because workers say the management had not lived up to a previously agreed-upon deal for a 50 cents per day meal subsidy and a $5 a month health care bonus.
Last year, part of the Wing Star factory roof collapsed, killing two workers. Japanese footwear company Asics Corp (TYO:7936), which owns the factory, agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in compensation to the families of the deceased workers and others who were injured.
The government views these rash of strikes as subverting the public peace and have answered with bullets. In January, soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons into crowds of workers participating in a national industry-wide work stoppage.
The workers have rejected the government’s call to raise the minimum monthly wage to $95, which is less than the $160 the unions are demanding. The U.K.-based Labour Behind the Label and the Phnom Penh–based Community Legal Education Centre estimate that workers need about $150 a month to cover the basic cost of living in Cambodia. Cambodia’s garment, textile and shoe industry is dwarfed by Bangladesh’s, but it's the primary export for the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
It’s the lifeblood for about a half million workers — most of whom are women — and the goods are supplied mainly to the United States thanks to a most-favored nation trade status. Many workers are internal migrants who spend about $10 to $25 traveling to and from their villages each month.