PHNOM PENH – A Cambodian court found 25 people guilty on Friday of acts of violence during strikes by garment workers but all were given suspended sentences and freed, a ruling likely to be welcomed by global manufacturers operating in the country.
The deadly crackdown on the strikes and working conditions in the garment sector have attracted international criticism.
Representatives of global brands including Hennes & Mauritz AB, Gap Inc, Puma SE and Levi Strauss & Co visited Cambodia this week to tell the government their buying would depend on stability, transparency and the rule of law, according to IndustriALL Global Union, a labour group based in Switzerland that attended the talks.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court judges convicted the workers, trade unionists and protesters of intentional violence including damage to public property during strikes in November last year and January 2014.
They were given suspended jail terms of between one and 4 and a half years.
Cambodia’s garment industry generated US$5.3 billion (172 billion baht) in revenue last year. The industry employs about 600,000 people and strikes for higher pay and better working conditions have been on the rise.
Cambodian military police opened fire with assault rifles on Jan 3 to quell a strike by garment factory workers demanding a doubling of their monthly wage to $160. At least three people were killed.
The government increased the wage to $100 from $80 but unions and workers have refused to accept it.
They have joined forces with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has been protesting on and off for months after claiming it won a general election last July. The party of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen won according to the election authority and he remains in power.
Levi’s has cut its sourcing from Cambodia in the past year due to concerns about political instability and human rights violations in the country, the group said in an email to Reuters.
“We reduced our sourcing in Cambodia to reduce supply chain risk and ensure delivery. We hope to see swift progress on the outstanding labour and human rights concerns so our sourcing can return to previous levels,” Levi’s said.
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, said in a statement after the talks with the government: “For the first time global brands have acknowledged that they are prepared to cost in the price of higher salaries in Cambodia.”
Ahead of the verdicts, Mr Raina had said the companies and unions were concerned about the fate of those appearing in court and that Cambodia “was at risk of losing its status as a strategic sourcing market, with an impact on future investment and growth”.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the minimum wage could not be doubled and that it had to go up gradually for the industry to survive. Exports had dropped 17% in the first three months of the year compared with last year, he said.
“There is no country that can double wages,” Ken Loo said, adding that most international buyers had not agreed to pay more to local factories to enable them to increase wages. “If we increase by too much, factories close.”