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Cambodia: Textile boom and mass strikes

By Tobias Hansen

Southeast Asia is one of the centres of the international class struggle. While in Thailand, the right-wing opposition currently wants to abolish parliamentary democracy, Cambodia is being shaken by a mass strike of textile workers. Since the spring of 2013, there have been repeated waves of strikes, by November the number had risen to 131

Importance of the industry

The textile firms are the main employers in Cambodian industry. Some 700,000, work in about 800 textile and shoe factories, almost all of them women. In the last 10 years there has been a lot of foreign investment in the textile industry, especially since wages have risen in China, Cambodia is a new site for cheap labour in textile production. The industry made ​​€3.7 billion in sales in 2013, 22 percent more than in 2012, reflecting the boom in this industry.

Internationally, the country is certainly still one of the smaller players and is in direct competition with Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. Many plants have been located in rural areas, where they are in many cases the only work source of work. By May 2013, strikes and protests had forced an increase in the minimum wage in the textile industry from 80 to 100 dollars a month. This increase was set by the Government of the PCC (Cambodian People’s Party) and Prime Minister Hu Sen in response to the protests.

However, this increase was not sufficient to compensate for past inflation, although the figure for 2013 was just under 8 percent, in previous years it had been much higher, 30 percent in 2007, so that, over the longer term, wages have not kept pace with prices. The main demand of the strike, therefore, is to increase the minimum wage to $160 a month and the payment of overtime, because many workers clock up 60 hours a week, but are not paid.

Mass strike

On 24 December, 2013, the textile unions CCAWDU (Democratic Union of Cambodian garment workers ) and NIFTUC (National Independent Federation of Textile Unions ) called for a mass strike. According to various sources, this brought out as many as 400,000 workers and paralysed more than 80% of all production sites, especially the larger sites were affected by the strike. On 3 January, more than 100,000 strikers protested in the capital, Phnom Penh. Police and military responded with force, 5 strikers died and more than 20 were seriously injured and hundreds were arrested.

In early January, there was a further wave of strikes. Because of the strike, the bosses paid no wages for December, thereby jeopardising the lives of many strikers and their families. After the strike was suspended, the union leadership, under Ath Thon, negotiated with the capital GMAC Association and the Government, but under threat of further mass strikes. The longer term importance of this strike was that it clearly showed that the Cambodian working class is able to mount large mobilisations and struggles.

The situation in the industry

The mass strikes have once again drawn international attention to the working conditions in the textile industry. As in other countries, in Cambodia, it is global players such as Nike, Gap, H & M , Walmart, Puma and Adidas that allow production in deplorable conditions. Especially in the shoe industry even child labour is widespread. Girls between 10-14 years are super-exploited in shifts of 10-15 hours. Often, with their mothers, they are the main source of income for the family. The production facilities are more reminiscent of a labor camp, in which malnourished seamstresses are put to work. There are, effectively, no safety precautions. A disaster such as that in Bangladesh, where, in 2013, more than a thousand workers died when their factory collapsed in flames, could happen at any time in Cambodia. So the In Southeast Asia globalised capitalism shows a side of itself that is like Europe or the US in the very earliest years of capitalist development.

It is a feature of the imperialist epoch, that all regions and countries are subjected to the dictates of investment and the profit motive. This is accompanied by the proletarianization of countries that were previously not directly integrated into the world market. Specifically, the textile industry is an example of a high international division of labour in the interests of capital. In various waves after 1990, the textile industry in the western capitalist states was dismantled and relocated. In Germany, this process had already begun in the 1970s, when it was initially relocated to Southern and Southeastern Europe.

After 1990, U.S. corporations such as Nike and Gap relocated their production to Mexico and Central America, the maquiladoras (assembly plants) were similar in structure to the production in Southeast Asia today. That shift was greatly facilitated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA ) of 1994, which allowed companies to determine directly what was produced and under what conditions. Some of these maquiladoras are surrounded by walls, barbed wire and watchtowers. Trade union activities are prevented, often with brutal methods, even including murder.

Today, many factories in Asia follow the same pattern. There is no recognition of labour rights, the factories are like a legal vacuum in which even the minimum requirements of international labour law do not apply. There are no generally valid employment contracts, no right of association, let alone the right to strike or sue for unpaid wages.

The lack of an international class struggle trade union movement has meant that NGOs and their activists often have more information and access to this industry than as union representatives. In the best cases, this can mean that the NGOs are beginning to organise workers and thus establishing embryonic forms of trade unionism. However, in many cases their actions are limited to journalistic initiatives, reports are written and information campaigns carried out, these often call for boycotts of certain companies but ultimately they do not create links to the unions, or bring about much change in the producing countries. In the end that can really only be done by strong unions that operate internationally. Even the best NGOs cannot replace that.

Perspectives in Cambodia

The mass strikes and mass mobilisations in the last two months have shown that the Cambodian working class has awakened and has even used the weapon of the general strike, at least in the textile industry. The trade union federations, CCAWDU and NIFTUC, have become mass organisations and the textile unions today are the strongest and most conscious force in the Cambodian working class.

As in many semi-colonial countries, what is also missing in Cambodia is a political organisation, a workers’ party, which can represent and organise the entire class above and beyond the factory and trade union level. The former opposition party, SRP (Sam Raimsy Party, Sam Raimsy is the chairman) is an open national and bourgeois party, which officially declared its solidarity with the strikes, but can offer no alternative for the strikers.

The two major bourgeois parties are both the servants of the imperialist investors whose main aim is to defend and expand their sinecures as against other Southeast Asian locations. Also, a trade union movement, even if it has organised the strikes and called for a general strike, cannot be the solution for the strikers, especially not when the leadership of the unions suspend the strike for negotiations with the murderers of the 3rd January without having won a victory.

These painful, but also heroic, experiences of the Cambodian working class can, however, create the conditions for the establishment of a workers’ party. For that, there needs to be a movement amongst the strikers and their families that can raise the labor dispute to a political level. A workers’ party would also seek an alliance with the peasants, many of whom in Cambodia still live under pre-capitalist conditions and forms of exploitation and have no organisation.

The current situation in Southeast Asia shows that the time for an independent class policy, the goal of building a workers’ party is far from over, as some post-modernist trends in Europe like to suggest. As a world system, imperialism repeatedly raises in the most explosive ways, the question of how the wage earners and the oppressed can free themselves politically and what kind of organisation they need, this question is now more relevant than ever.

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