Over the past few weeks protests rocked Cambodia as garment workers took to the streets to demand better working conditions and wages. After opposition parties sided with labor unions, the government found itself facing a powerful and serious challenge to its power. The government responded with a heavy-handed crackdown, with several people having been killed by police fire, numerous other people having been arrested, and further protests being banned in the capital.
Protests began on December 24th when thousands of garment workers across the country walked out of their factories and took to the streets. The protests were among the strongest ever experienced by the country. Most workers have now returned to their factories, and for the moment it appears that the unions have been crushed. Many union leaders have since gone into hiding, fearing political retribution.
Cambodia is ruled by authoritarian strong man
Cambodia has been ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen since 1985 and is also the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party. People have long accused him of being a Vietnamese puppet as he came to office shortly after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from power. Hun Sen is also known for his tight control of the media, with several of members of his family and inner circle owning major media outlets.
In the 2013 election, however, the Cambodia National Rescue Party was able to secure 55 seats of the 123 seat parliament (with the CPP winning the rest). The election itself has been contested, with observers noting that since Cambodia has not conducted a national census for several years and tracking and registering voters remains problematic, it is possible that the elections were influenced through illegal means.
Opposition and unions increasingly working together
The last round of protests marked the first time that the Opposition Party and Unions worked in coordination with one another. If Hun Sen loses the support of younger unionized labor, he may find himself facing a serious challenge to his power. With his administration refusing to cave to union demands, it appears that union leaders are growing more willing to challenge Hun Sen directly. Given the high number of unionized workers, it’s possible that unions could even force a change of leadership.
At the same time, Cambodia and other Asian nations find themselves in a tricky spot. If minimum wages are raised, it’s possible that companies will simply pack up and move to countries with cheaper labor. The battle to maintain cheap labor and thus attract investment has created a sort of race to the bottom with many countries afraid to raise wages or force improvements to working conditions..