On Jan. 3, Cambodian police near the capital city of Phnom Penh attacked garment workers on general strike, firing assault weapons at picket lines, killing at least four workers and injuring dozens. They arrested 23 strike leaders and hauled them away in secret to a hard-time prison. This repression, along with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban on demonstrations, has forced many workers back to their jobs.
Workers in the 500,000-strong garment and shoe industries had begun their general strike Dec. 24, with a nationwide demand that the minimum wage be doubled from $80 a month to $160. That would barely raise wages to a subsistence level.
After the massacre seven international retail giants including Gap, Adidas and Levi Strauss, in a letter to Hun Sen, called for “restraint” in the use of force. But they signaled that they will keep their Cambodian supply line no matter what. Factory owners lay the blame for starvation wages on what retailers pay them.
The garment industry in Cambodia, including companies fleeing China’s militant workers, increased production by over 20% in 2013 before the general strike compared to 2012. It represents over one-third of Cambodia’s GDP and fully 70% of its exports.
In last July’s election the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party endorsed the workers’ demand for a $160 minimum wage. But a rigged vote kept in power the Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled under Hun Sen since 1985.
The rulers on Jan. 7 gloried in their murder of strikers as a triumph over lawless forces—at ceremonies marking the 35th anniversary of victory over the Khmer Rouge, which killed over a million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The irony overflows, as Hun Sen has continued to delay and obstruct the special court charged with bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to belated judgment, and the ruling party is riddled with Khmer Rouge holdovers.