As an industry-wide garment worker strike in Cambodia drew troops in riot gear carrying assault weapons, military police officers fired on the crowd of protesters and killed at least three people, the New York Times reports.
The protests took a violent turn, as the protesters “resisted police efforts to break up the demonstrations, and some threw homemade explosives, setting fire to vehicles, and pelted officers with rocks and other projectiles,” according to the Times. Police in turn fired live ammunition and smoke canisters.
This is the second time in three months that a protester has been shot in the country, which saw a record number of strikes in 2013, as one was killed in November. At least 23 were injured by police in May. Protesters have mostly been taking to the streets to demand higher pay in the country’s large garment industry.
The current strike is the biggest the country has seen in a year, with an estimated 300,000 people from 120 factories joining in when it began. Protesters have called to double the country’s minimum wage to $160 a month, far more than that government’s recent decision to raise it 19 percent to $95. The strike has also been part of massive demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down after a victory in July that his opposition and independent monitors say had deep problems.
The country’s low wages have made it attractive to apparel companies, putting it in the top ranks of garment exporters in the world. Its garment sector grew 32 percent over last year and earned $5.1 billion between January and November, up 22 percent over the year before. The country’s GDP per capita has also tripled since 2000. Yet while the government raised the garment industry’s minimum wage in May to $80 a month from $66, it was the largest increase in more than a decade and left wages on par with what they were in 2000, adjusted for inflation. Wages there had been declining for a decade, dropping nearly 20 percent between 2001 and 2011.
The drive to find low-wage countries to produce apparel has in large part been motivated by a thirst for cheap clothes from developed countries’ consumers. And it’s worked, bringing clothing prices down significantly. While the cost of all consumer items in the United States has increased by nearly 64 percent over the last decade, clothing prices have dropped by 3.3 percent. By contrast, at the turn of the 20th century the average affordable clothing item cost about $8, which would be $380 today adjusted for inflation.
Clothing retailers have also targeted Bangladesh as a cheap place to produce apparel, but it too has seen violent protests demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Dozens were injured in November by police water cannons and rubber bullets while protesting for a bigger increase in the minimum wage than what the government offered. The unrest has also been sparked by a fatal factory collapse last April that killed 1,127 people.