Neighbors Take Cue From China Labor Unrest

NY Times |  By REUTERS | September, 13 2010 |  Share  | Source Article

PHNOM PENH — Moeun Tola, a Cambodian labor advocate, blames Gap, Nike and other major Western brands for miring Cambodian workers in low wages. Inspired by labor disputes in China, he is pushing back.

Mr. Moeun Tola and thousands of Cambodian garment workers began a five-day walkout Monday to demand better wages and benefits, a sign that recent labor unrest in China may be spreading to factories elsewhere in Asia that supply the world with low-cost goods.

A wave of worker disputes in China in recent months, mostly at foreign-owned factories like Honda and Foxconn, has raised questions about whether other low-cost Asian manufacturing centers will also see higher wages as their workers become more assertive.

In Bangladesh, thousands of textile workers demanding an increase in wages to 5,000 taka, or $72, a month from 3,000 taka clashed with the police last month and at least 500 people were wounded. In Vietnam, thousands went on strike in April at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory.

In Cambodia, advocates like Mr. Moeun Tola say that Gap, Nike, Wal-Mart and other big Western retailers are socially responsible, so they should be putting more pressure on Cambodian factories that pay as little as $50 a month.

“Big companies like Nike, Adidas and Wal-Mart have a code of conduct when putting in orders in Cambodia and can make sure no workers are violated or get poor pay and that they can have contracts that last longer than just a few months,” he said.

The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, representing about 40,000 workers, said it expected about 80,000 people to go on strike as they sought a $93 monthly wage — a 50 percent increase from the $61 agreed in July under a four-year pact between the government and several unions.

That was up from a previous monthly wage of $56.

Western retailers are not the only manufacturers that have been picketed. Chheng Chanvy, 25, has camped under a tent for days outside a factory in Phnom Penh to protest monthly wages as low as $50 paid by her Chinese-owned employer, San Lei Fung Garment & Woolen Knitting Factory. She said workers were no longer paid monthly, but by the volume they produced.

“We don’t get a salary. We are paid by the quantity of work, so we earn around $50 to $90 a month,” Ms. Chheng Chanvy said. “This is not enough. My family spends almost all of that on water and electricity bills.”

The factory where she works, San Lei Fung, has been singled out by a U.S. human rights advocacy group, the National Labor Committee, as a “sweatshop” that supplies U.S. brands.

San Lei Fung executives declined to comment.

Cambodian workers need at least $72 a month to survive, according to the Cambodia Institute of Development Study, with $57 going to basic needs and $15 for their dependents.

Ken Loo of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia said that wages were fair and that most workers were content.

“This is not a complaint by the majority of workers,” he said “Therefore, it is not a valid complaint.”

Peter Brimble, chief economist for Cambodia at the Asian Development Bank, worries that the strike is coming at a difficult time for an industry that shed almost 30,000 jobs in 2009 after a slump in sales to the United States and Europe.

Of Cambodia’s 13.4 million people, the textiles sector employs an estimated 300,000, who send cash back to impoverished villages.

“It’s not the right time,” Mr. Brimble said of the strike.