Around 100 soldiers in riot gear carrying assault rifles broke up a protest by garment workers on strike on Thursday. They used force to clear hundreds of workers outside their factory near the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. It’s not known how many were hurt.
Labor rights activist Chhorn Sokha told Reuters, “Soldiers beat up everyone” using batons, slingshots, stones, and sticks. A Reuters photographer and others were hit by batons, and two witnesses saw troops strike a Buddhist monk.
The country’s garment workers have staged a nationwide strike for over a week, the largest of 2013, calling for doubling the country’s minimum wage to $160 a month in the face of the government’s decision to raise it to $95, a 19 percent increase. Estimates had 300,000 workers joining the strike. Wages in the country have been on the decline over the last decade, dropping nearly 20 percent between 2001 and 2011. While the government raised the wage in May to $80 a month from $66, the largest increase in over a decade, their pay is only on par with what it was in 2000 with inflation taken into account. The country is one of the top garment exporters, and the industry earned $5.1 billion from January to November last year, up 22 percent from the year before.
Cambodian garment workers mounted 131 strikes between January and November, an increase over the past year and making 2013 a record-setting year for strikes. While the protests had been mostly peaceful before the crackdown on Thursday, other strikes have also brought violence. At least 23 were injured in May by police with stun batons and a protester was shot dead in November. Beyond the violence, nearly 300 workers were fired for going on strike for higher pay in June.
Cambodian workers aren’t alone in protesting for higher pay and getting met with violence. Bangladeshi garment workers have demanded a bigger increase in the country’s minimum wage than the one offered by the government. They were met with water cannons and rubber bullets, and dozens were injured.