Why Ngim refuses to sew cargo pants for $40 a month

Yesterday, hundreds of Cambodian garment workers tore down a factory gate.

Every morning, 19-year-old Ngim Daralin goes to work making shirts and khaki pants that could eventually end up with labels from the Gap, Ralph Lauren, or Fruit of the Loom.

But yesterday was different.

After working forced overtime with no hope of a raise in sight, Ms. Daralin and thousands of other garment workers decided enough was enough. They took to the streets to organize the latest in a string of mass strikes and protests demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

As Cambodia is enjoying peace for the first time in decades , theirs is a homegrown movement bolstered by a bold opposition party and seemingly perpetual foreign assistance. A fledgling democracy is emerging, and as a result the push for workers' rights is taking on a life of its own.

After refusing to report to work, hundreds of strikers yesterday morning tore down the gate to a Cambodian-owned factory, convincing 200 more workers to walk off the job. The group marched on to several more facilities throughout the day, until workers at 19 of the country's more than 200 garment factories went on strike.

Clothing manufacturing has been the largest and fastest growing industry in Cambodia since the economy was opened up in the early 1990s. Its major customers are US brand names.

Most Cambodian garment workers are women from the countryside, where 80 percent of Cambodia's population farms at subsistence level.

Unlike most Cambodian women, Daralin holds her head high when she speaks, loudly sharing her opinions. Of the $40 she earns a month, she says she can barely scrape together some extra money to send home to her family.

Highest among workers' demands is to increase this $40 minimum wage to $70, which they say is comparable for the region. The Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia says workers in southern China earn about $50 per month, $60 in Indonesia, $90 in the Philippines, and up to $500 in Taiwan. These are average figures though, and do not reflect lower wages in the "sweatshop" factories with the worst conditions.

Cambodia's minimum wage was set by the government and by factory owners, who have flocked to Cambodia in recent years for its cheap labor and minimal red tape.

This week marked the first time workers were allowed to negotiate their wages, during a meeting with government officials and factory owners. Although the panel did not vote down a wage hike, as expected, it tabled more concrete discussions until later, union representatives said.

Yesterday's strike started out as a small wave after the ambiguous panel meeting, but it grew beyond expectations. "The wage issue has provided a catalyst for all sorts of other lingering labor disputes," says Katja Hemmerich, a Canadian adviser to the union. "This illustrates that we are dealing with a legitimate, democratic movement here. People are unhappy with their situation, and they want to change it."

The minimum wage was set in 1997 after opposition party leader Sam Rainsy demanded it of the government's now-ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Yet even the at-times opportunistic Mr. Rainsy has pulled away from the movement lately.

The opposition leader was nowhere to be found when the current wave of protests and strikes began here on International Labor Day, May 1. More than 5,000 workers marched through the streets, carrying huge banners and spending an entire day protesting in front of government offices.

Rainsy said it would be "counterproductive" to continue supporting labor, as it would give the CPP reason to intimidate workers. "The labor movement in Cambodia has grown up. They don't need me behind them anymore," he told reporters at the time.

Factory owners tend not to blame politics for changes in Cambodia's labor movement. Rather, they look to Western-influenced organizations that they say are pushing workers to demand "non-Asian" standards.

"They tell the workers to strike first, kill first. But that's not how you make progress in Asian businesses. You must try to negotiate first," says Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia chairman Van Sou Ieng, owner of three factories in Phnom Penh.

Since the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, the country has hosted one of the world's highest numbers of nongovernmental organizations per capita. At least three international groups deal directly with labor unions, while several others assist garment workers indirectly.

But for Ngim Daralin, it's personal. Two months ago she joined a union after she was picked up by the collar and dropped to the floor for fishing a clothing pattern out of the garbage.

When she arrived at work on Wednesday and saw people refusing to go inside, something in her snapped.

"I stayed out," she says. "I don't know if they will listen to me or not, or if they will fire me or punish me. But I know that I must try. I have suffered already."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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