On Christmas eve, as Australian retailers like K-Mart and Big-W tried to maximise holiday sales profits, the Cambodian workers who make their clothes and footwear (as well as for Adidas, Levi Strauss, H&M, the Gap and Puma) were walking out on strike.

Between Christmas and the New Year the strike spread until it ground the garments sector to a halt. Workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage from $80 to $160 a month. When the government offered just $95, the strike erupted. Then they sent in the army and thugs.

On 2 January the Cambodian military and riot police shot dead four striking workers. Soldiers and riot people were then sent into factories across the country. The repression forced a halt to the strike, but the struggle is far from over. Already there have been more strikes and sit-ins.

The garments sector has grown massively in the last decade and now represents 80 per cent of Cambodia’s export industry and the backbone of its economy. There are 800 factories employing 600,000 workers on below subsistence wages. In the first 11 months of last year the industry made $5 billion, up 22 per cent on the previous year. These profits are generated by women, 90 per cent of the workforce, earning $5 for a 10-12 hour workday. Labour rights groups say that a living wage would be $283 a month. Instead workers work excessive overtime, live in overcrowded and unventilated dorms, and suffer malnutrition that leads to large-scale fainting in the factories.

The growth of textile production in Cambodia is the latest in a long pattern of garment producing capitalists seeking countries with the cheapest labour. But in each country workers’ resistance has eventually developed. After only 34 strikes in Cambodia in 2011, there were 131 in 2013 before the December strike.

The fear created by the killings cannot last. While Cambodia’s labour laws state that workers cannot be paid for strike days, the government advised textile companies to offer half-pay for the strike in December and January. When some factory managers refused, around 12,000 workers in Kandal and Phnom Penh struck and occupied their factories. It is only a matter of time before the struggle to increase the minimum wage breaks out again.

By Jean Parker

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