May 30, 2014
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Friday, May 30, 2014 was a momentous day in Cambodia and it was a thrill to have been a part of it. The Court of First Instance in Phnom Penh issued a ruling releasing jailed unionist and human rights activist Vorn Pao and 22 others arrested during garment wage protests in January of this year. While the ruling found all 23 human rights defenders and protestors guilty of their involvement in three separate garment protest cases, the Court suspended their sentences, ordering their release from prison.
Critics pointed to political pressure, calling the verdict a result of competing pressures from the government. The government of Cambodia, in support of a conviction, held meetings the week leading up to the verdict with representatives of international garment brands visiting Phnom Penh (including Gap, H&M and Levis), who have been placing pressure to improve working conditions and do more to protect worker’s rights. However such companies themselves have been under scrutiny and criticism themselves, particularly in the wake of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza Factory collapse in 2013, killing over 1,100 garment factory workers who were crushed under eight stories of concrete.
Among the most critical issues facing garment factory workers in Cambodia has been the inadequate minimum wage and poor working conditions. Workers have been demanding that the wages be increased to $160/month – currently minimum wage for garment factory workers is only at $100/month. With increasing prices in the markets and soaring rents, most garment workers are faced with no choice but to work overtime simply to make ends meet. Poor working conditions have led to mass fainting due to poor ventilation and overwork. In 2011, there were over 1,000 reports of fainting in Cambodia’s factories mostly owned by Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean companies.
Despite criticism of the verdict, scores of supporters broke out in cheers and celebration over the release of the 23 defendants. Soon after the announcement of the verdict was made, my colleagues and I headed towards the prison where the 23 individuals were being held. As human rights observers, our aim was to ensure that due process procedures would be followed in the release of the 23. We soon received word that all 23 accused had already been released and were heading in a procession on National Road No. 3 towards the office of activist Vorn Pao, who is also the founder of the national NGO, Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (“IDEA”). Hailing wide popular support, Pao is one of Cambodia’s leading advocates for better working conditions in the garment sector. A former garment factory worker himself, Pao has organized thousands of workers across Cambodia, including tuk tuk drivers and moto-taxis, as well as land rights activists. Over the past few months in Phnom Penh, it’s become obvious to me that Pao is highly regarded, as I hear only his praises among my Cambodian friends and tuk tuk drivers I regularly interact with.
Our team’s excitement ran high in anticipation as we made our way to Vorn Pao’s office, where crowds would be gathering in solidarity of the released. As we headed by tuk tuk on National Road No. 3, along the way a woman riding on the back of a moto-dop waved at us excitedly and asked if we were going to join the procession. When we told her we were, she asked if she could join us in our tuk tuk as she was also heading there to show her support. We pulled over so she could join us. Climbing onto our tuk tuk, she carried with her a large, heavy sack filled with fruit. The woman told us that she cleaned houses, and since she had to work early that morning, she was unable to join the rally of supporters at the court of first instance. She beamed as she told us she was able to take the afternoon off and was going to distribute the fruit to all those who had been released. Her spirit and enthusiasm were infectious, and hearing her story really struck me at how important the release of the 23 was for Cambodians, particularly for those employed in low-paying sectors such as housecleaning and domestic work – where protections for workers are virtually non-existent.
We soon caught up with the procession consisting of hundreds of tuk tuks and cars carrying people singing and chanting slogans in support of the released. People waved Cambodian flags from their tuk tuks and shouted “Jiyo Kampuchea!” (long live Cambodia!) The supporters heading to Vorn Pao’s office consisted of garment factory workers, activists, monks and many others. Shopkeepers, lined along National Road # 3, came out of their stores and watched the procession go by, many handing out free bottles of water.
Around 30 minutes later, we arrived at the office of Vorn Pao along with hundreds of other supporters. Making our way through the crowd, we entered the first floor of IDEA’s headquarters, where a blessing ceremony led by Buddhist monks was about to begin for the released. The crowd swelled as Vorn Pao and Theng Savourn (a high profile activist working on land rights who had also been released on Friday) came out of their cars and entered the office. Cameras of reporters flashed as they made their way inside. Among the crowd, I briefly met the mother of released human rights defender, Theng Savourn, who proudly said in Khmer, “That is my son, I am his mother”.
Once Vorn Pao and Theng Savourn were inside the building, they sat down before a group of around 15 monks dressed in brightly colored saffron robes, who began chanting Buddhist prayers. Joining their hands, both Pao and Sovourn bowed their heads in reverence before the monks who continued chanting and sprinkling holy water from a bowl containing small white flower petals. The smell of incense mixed with sweat permeated the packed room. It was an exhilarating and moving experience and I knew I was witnessing something important.
Locally driven organizing and activism has attracted increased global attention to poor working conditions in Cambodia’s garment sector. With the international community watching, the presence of representatives from international garment brands also seems to have played a significant role in Friday’s outcome. Despite the verdict, the work of human rights defenders in Cambodia continues forward. On a personal level, poverty in Phnom Penh reminds me on a daily basis how much that needs to be done to improve the condition of all workers, through development projects and programs which are more inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
Our greater individual and collective knowledge of poor working conditions can empower consumers (even company shareholders) and hold companies to a higher standard in their international business operations. Nothing short of best international practices should be acceptable by foreign companies operating in Cambodia, a country where labor laws may be well-developed on paper not implemented in practice. According to international law, States must live up to their national and international obligations by promoting and protecting national and international labor laws and standards they are legally committed to. Moreover, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses are obligated to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address the adverse impacts of their activities.
It was impossible not to celebrate the unexpected release of the 23 on Friday, May 30, 2014 – no small victory in drawing international attention to the issue. Yet despite Friday’s results, the struggle must continue for worker’s rights in Cambodia’s garment sector, which must begin with an immediate increase in the minimum wage and greater social protection, but cannot stop there.