A week after garment workers across Cambodia staged a massive strike, as many as 1,200 workers from the sector were fired across the country on January 10. The garments industry is the single largest sector in the country, employing over 700,000 people and accounting for 40% of the nation’s GDP. A powerful workers’ movement has been building up in the sector since the protests of 2013-2014 over poor working conditions, human rights violations, delay in payment of wages and other indemnities.
The workers who were fired had refused to return to work after a court declared the strike illegal.
Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the workers to maintain “calm” over fears of factory closures and possible flight of industrial foreign investments. The mass sacking also comes at a time when the Hun Sen government is under tremendous international pressure for rights violations and Sen’s alleged abuse of democratic and legal systems.
At the turn of the year, garment factory workers across Cambodia hit the streets with demands of better wages, job security, payments of seniority indemnities and healthcare. The garments sector has been at the epicentre of Cambodia’s workers’ movement and its famed trade unions. Ever since the democratization process that began after the Paris Accords of 1993, unions have been central in mobilizing political opposition against the government that has been dominated by Hun Sen-led Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since 1985. With the lack of any real parliamentary opposition, except for the brief period when Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was active, the trade unions have acted as the veritable opposition against the government.
Ever since the ban on CNRP by a court order in 2017 and the consequent landslide sweep of CPP in the parliamentary election of July 2018, the state machinery has doubled down on trade unions. In December 2018, six trade union leaders were sentenced and effectively banned from political activities by the Phnom Penh municipal court in a highly controversial trial. But instead of dying down, the workers’ movement only got stronger. It remains to be seen how the large-scale dismissal of workers will play out in terms of unionization and mobilization of workers.