The Rupp Report: It’s Not Only Bangladesh

Last year, the Rupp Report informed its readers a few times about the sad situation and the status quo in Bangladesh — the last time in November (See “The Rupp Report: Bangladesh: Will The Story Ever Come To An End?, Nov. 26, 2013). The report began: “It seems that the status quo in the Bangladeshi textile industry hasn’t changed that much. However, the increasing pressure from some international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) through social media and newspapers has caused some changes in the minds of the responsible people in this country.”
Now, It’s Cambodia
It began in late December 2013: Hundreds of thousands of textile workers in Cambodia started striking in a dispute over higher wages, which led many textile factories to stop production. “Two-thirds of the approximately 600,000 employees are not at work,” said a union representative. More than 30,000 workers marched in protest. Some factories are on strike; and in others, the factory owners have excluded the workers in protest. The association of textile manufacturers said the strikes forced the entrepreneurs to take that action. The government has increased the minimum wage from US$80 to US$95 per month, but the unions are demanding US$160.
Illusive silence
After relative calm over the New Year, protests flared again on January 2, when striking textile workers clashed with soldiers, and several demonstrators were injured. At least 10 activists and workers were arrested, said a spokesman for the military police.
Previously, several hundred workers had blocked a road south of the capital, Phnom Penh, by setting tires on fire and throwing objects at the police. Phnom Penh’s deputy chief of police called the protesters anarchists who had destroyed public and private property. After a week of increasing violence, police actions intensified against the protesters.
A representative of the Cambodian human rights group ADHOC said that the authorities ordered the military to break down the protests. According to this spokesperson, journalists and activists were injured. The next day, the situation escalated, as the military fired on textile workers. Three persons were killed and several others were wounded, as was confirmed by the police.
According to experts, a Cambodian worker today earns about the same amount as in 2001. Because the labor cost is so cheap, some production has shifted from China to Cambodia. Chinese wages are three times higher. Nevertheless, the Cambodian factory owners refused to increase the wages.
Important Industry Sector
About 650,000 people are employed in Cambodia’s textile industry, including 400,000 who make garments and other articles for international fashion brands such as Gap, Nike and H&M. The textile sector is important as a source of hard currency for the country.
Textiles represent Cambodia’s largest export industry, with revenues greater than US$5 billion and accounting for most of the country’s exports. The authorities tried to intimidate the protesters by their strong actions, said Kong Ahtit of the textile workers union. However, at a recent meeting of the country’s six largest independent unions, it was decided that the strikes will continue until the government declares it is ready to have a new round of negotiations.
Ongoing Boycott
A spokesman for the military police told news agencies that the police had used violence after several police officers were attacked and injured in clashes. However, there is also a political impact from the most recent protests. In the past two weeks, it is reported that there have been almost daily demonstrations by opposition supporters in Phnom Penh against the current government. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has rejected the election results of July 2013 and is calling for new elections, citing numerous irregularities — more than 200, according to one Cambodian non-governmental organization — that overshadowed the voting.
Government Will Not Back Down
The problems started with the demand to double the minimum wage. The government has offered only a 25-percent increase. A few days ago, almost all of the country’s apparel workers returned to work after the unsuccessful strike. For one of the coming days, the union has announced a new demonstration.
All the factories are back in operation, reported the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), and some 90 percent of the workers are back. According to the association, there are more than 400 factories and approximately 600,000 workers, most of them female. Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said they are continuing to negotiate with the factories and the government. “However, if we don’t achieve what we are asking for, we will go back on strike,” he added. According to the association of Cambodian apparel manufacturers, the strike has caused more than US$200 million in losses.
And Now?
As in the case of Bangladesh, the rest of the world recognizes that “something’s wrong” in the Asian apparel industry and that “something should change.” However, interviews with Western buyers in international retail shops show that people are aware of the facts but are mostly not willing to stop buying cheap products. This behavior goes back some two decades ago, when the Western apparel industry moved toward Asia and buying cheap products became common sense for Western people. It is somewhat strange to see that the same people who are protesting against multinational companies and accusing them of treating their workers like slaves with low wages and high hourly work, are buying the cheap products. Again, it is the same as with the development of children: the way one educates them is the way they behave. And there is an old saying: The shirt is closer to the body than the jacket. To be continued …
January 24, 2014