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Rebecca Henschke reports on garment workers killed by riot police when striking for pay rise

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REBECCA HENSCHKE, PRODUCER: /hatˈsəmiæŋ/’s husband worked in a factory that supplied the U.S. brand Walmart. He started working there when he was 16 years old and earned around USD 3 a month. In January, when fellow workers took to the streets demanding a doubling of the minimum wage, he joined them.

— (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The money is not enough. Everything is going up. So he joined the protest to get a raise, for our child, to live as normal people, to live a normal life.

HENSCHKE: The Cambodian government’s own commission had found that a livable minimum wage needed to be around USD 160 a month. So when the government announced an increase well below that, the reaction was immediate.

DAVID WELSH, U.S. LABOUR RIGHTS GROUP SOLIDARITY CENTER: Given this buildup, you know, there was going to be some massive reaction. And there was. What wasn’t anticipated was then the counter reaction, which was the murdering and shooting of workers.

HENSCHKE: This footage was recorded by garment workers from their dorms. It shows police firing live ammunition directly at hundreds of civilians who were blocking a road outside the Canadia Industrial Park area. And the aftermath.

Rights activist Moses Ngyen takes me to the place where the killings happened.

MOSES NGYEN, CLEC: [That time?], that was like battle of the battlefield between those armies and the workers there. A couple of people were shot dead and over 40 people got injured and sent to the hospital.

HENSCHKE: When /kiˈjæt.sɛ.miˌjɛŋ/ heard the news on the radio, she tried to call her husband. She couldn’t get through. So she called her brother-in-law’s phone.

–: He told me that your husband was shot dead and I am on the way to take the body to the Russian hospital. It was not till I saw the body of my husband that I believe it.

HENSCHKE: This photo was taken when her husband was being rushed to hospital.

–: When you raised your hand to kill my husband, did you think about his wife and children? My husband before he got shot and killed, I know how much he pleaded for his life, because I saw the photo before his body was taken to a tuk-tuk. His hands were together. So I know many times he pled for his life.

HENSCHKE: Four other people were killed during the protests, and a 16-year-old boy is missing, believed dead. Twenty-three others were arrested, including union leader Vorn Pao, whose beating and arrest was recorded here by the rights group Mikado.

NGO MONITOR: That’s enough! [repeat] That’s enough! Don’t mistreat him.

HENSCHKE: He’s being held in a prison near the Vietnamese border. His wife has repeatedly made applications for bail, and they have been repeatedly denied.

WIFE OF ARRESTED UNION LEADER VORN PAO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Why didn’t they release him so he can get medical care? It’s very unjust! Unjust! Why? We need our family back together.

HENSCHKE: Vorn Pao and the others are being charged with destroying public property and inciting violence. The police say the protesters were anarchists who needed to be chased out.


Get out! Get out! Do you want to make another war?

They have given you peace, so what more do you want? Today is peace, so you’re looking for what?

We, we work for LICADHO organization.

Whichever NGO, get out! They are working!

Do you want to have chaos and shooting at each other?


HENSCHKE: There’s been no investigation into why live bullets were used, and no talk of compensation.

PROTESTER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): You could shoot me! Shoot me if it’s not yet enough blood! Smell, you can smell my blood!

WELSH: Basically, the government is on record privately to me as saying, you know, as far as they’re concerned, not a single dollar in compensation is going to be going to any of the families of the deceased or any of the injured, so that to get any sort of compensation, there’s an ongoing process where brands will be asked to contribute to a fund that’s being put together.

HENSCHKE: Ken Loo represents around 150 garment and footwear factories in Cambodia. He says they will be seeking, not paying compensation, as the industry lost millions of dollars due to the strikes and protests.


KEN LOO, GMAC: You know, we [incompr.] at least suffer in this whole incident. Who’s seeking compensation for us? Buyers are obviously not going to give us any cent. You know?

It is unfortunate that, you know, the lady you spoke to lost her husband. But then again, you could ask: why was he involved in it? Was he involved in a demonstration?


LOO: Some people claim that they are bystandards. Oh my God. If–.

HENSCHKE: No, he was part of the demonstration. They were striking for a better living wage. He said he couldn’t survive, he couldn’t live on $100, and he thought he’d take the chance to–as the ILO says, they have a right to strike. And Cambodia has signed the ILO. So he took the right to strike on that day, and he was killed.

LOO: He has a right to strike. He has the right to strike peacefully. He has no right to strike and engage in violence.

HENSCHKE: He didn’t engage in violence, she says.

LOO: Really?

HENSCHKE: There’s no evidence.

LOO: The whole demonstration engaged in violence.

HENSCHKE: He walked down the street.

LOO: Why was he there when people were–. If I was a peaceful demonstrator and I see in front of me a few hundred, if not thousands of demonstrators first, and on the other hand I see a few hundred anti-riot police with rifles, and if I’m not involved, I’m not going to stay there. I’m going to scoot my ass home.

HENSCHKE: The garment industry generates $5.5 billion from the 600 factories in Cambodia.

WELSH: It accounts for well over 80 percent of the export GDP–single largest industry in the country. You know, the fate of the garment industry sort of controls the fate of the economy at this stage.

HENSCHKE: Right now it’s fueling rapid development in the capital, Phnom Penh, but signs of the new rich are everywhere. But the industry says they can’t afford to raise wages because the brands, the buyers, are not willing to pay more.


LOO: Investors are here to make money. Investors are not here for charity. Investors are not here because of good compliance. Investors are here because we need to make money. So if we make money, we continue to stay here. If we don’t, then very naturally they need to start to look at leaving. And they will.

HENSCHKE: Where, really, could they go?

LOO: It’s not a question of where really could they go. Now, the Vietnam has a higher minimum wage, yes, but only slightly higher. But their productivity is much higher. You know. And Indonesia, although, yeah, it’s got a ridiculously high minimum wage, but really if you want productivity adjusted, unit costs per output is probably on par with Cambodia.


MU SOCHUA, OPPOSITION POLITICIAN: This excuse has been used by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, GMAC, for many, many years. It’s an old song. And it needs really to have a new tune.

Blood of the workers tainted on the T-shirts of Gap, on the shoes of Puma, of Nike. That is hurting these big brands. And they do not want to leave Cambodia. In fact, they put pressure on the government to find a solution.

HENSCHKE: The Cambodian Garment Association says they will be able to pay USD 60 a month in five years’ time. It’s something echoed by one of the major brands, H&M, who has pledged to play a living wage in all its factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh by 2018.

WELSH: It’s positive they’re saying this. But on the other hand, flip the comment around and say, in what other industry would you tolerate a major investor acknowledging that what’s paid now is not a living wage, they themselves will try to get to it, but in the meantime, in the interim five years, the profits will continue to boom, the industry will continue to boom, and we’ll get to this small issue of the fact that workers can’t live off–the workers who are making the clothing can’t live off the legal wage?

HENSCHKE: Unions in Cambodia are not willing to wait for five years. /sɪboʊænˈjʌŋ/ started working in a garment factory when she was 16. She’s now one of the union leaders battling for a pay rise. She tells her members that they shouldn’t be afraid to take to the streets again.

–: If you want something, we have to sacrifice something. You have to invest something if you want a return. And I think that my members are ready for this. I mean, we want $160, but we are afraid to demonstrate. Who will pay us? If we stay silent, no one will increase our pay.

HENSCHKE: The industry is warning that this will not be tolerated. Ken Loo says there’ll be mass sackings sooner rather than later.

/kiˌjætsəmiˈjʌŋ/, who’s now raising her daughter without a father, is going to go back to her job in the factory, making clothes for global brands Gap and H&M.

–: When my child can start eating and running, I will take her to my mother and leave her and come back and start working in the factory to earn money for my child. And when she grow up, I want her to study a lot in Phnom Penh. I want her to go to school and get a good education.

HENSCHKE: For FSRN and The Real News, Rebecca Henschke, Phnom Penh.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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