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Editorial: Will brands deliver on promise to help improve Cambodian workers’ wages?

June 3, 2014

On May 30, Cambodian courts ruled that 23 workers and human rights defenders arrested in January were guilty of causing violence during a massive strike for an increase in the country’s minimum wage.

However, to the surprise of many of us, the courts handed down suspended sentences and ordered the release of 21 of the accused who had been detained for the past five months.

The fate of those convicted is still uncertain; they face heavy fines and could be rearrested for participating in strikes or protest activities. Human Rights Watch has called for their convictions to be quashed, along with their criminal records, noting that the convictions could "incur penalities such as a prohibition on serving as union leaders."

Given, the total absence of credible evidence presented at the trials, it seems that the only thing the 23 are actually guilty of is the crime of defending workers’ right to a salary that is sufficient to meet their nutritional and other basic needs.

While factory owners continue to dismiss the numerous incidents of garment workers fainting on the job as cases of female mass hysteria, a number of recent studies have identified the real causes of the fainting as starvation wages, long working hours and overheated factories.

To their credit, major apparel brands whose products are made in Cambodia appear to have played a significant role in helping to gain the release of the imprisoned labour activists. 

On May 26, a delegation of brands, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, Levi’s and Puma, together with the Global Unions, met with the Cambodian government to reiterate their message that “political stability and respect for human and worker rights are essential to maintaining sourcing in Cambodia.”

According to the Global Union IndustriALL, the brands have made a commitment to adjust their prices to accommodate an increase the minimum wage. Whether they make good on that promise is yet to be seen.

Ultimately, there will be no resolution to the underlying causes of worker unrest in Cambodia unless and until the brands are willing to pay fair prices to their suppliers that allow them to pay wages that meet workers’ basic needs. 

At this moment, however, we want to join with the families, colleagues and friends of the 23, as well as all those who worked so hard for their release, in celebrating their freedom.   


Lynda Yanz, for the MSN team



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