Monday, December 30, 2013

The Machine That Never Sleeps: Cambodian Garment Workers' Protests and the March Towards Globalization

The world is rife with protests. Arab Springs, Ukrainian Springs, even Turkey is boiling up again.

But our neighbor to the East in the war-torn nation of Cambodia, having once suffered the largest U.S. bombing campaign in history, has joined the "league of discontent" and is seeing popular protests against its leader.

The man that everyone hates today is Prime Minister Hun Sen. He has, through elections, been in that position since 1993.

General elections have been held about every five years, and Hun Sen has won with similar margins for these past two decades. In 2008, the royalist party, FUNCINPEC, abdicated and formed a coalition with Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party (CPP, the splintered-off and reform wing of the Khmer Rouge).

In that year, the CPP was challenged by the Human Rights Party, led by the Western-educated Kem Sokha, and the Sam Rainsy Party, led by former French banker, Sam Rainsy.

Hun Sen, of course, came out victorious again, winning about 58% of the popular vote.

Come this year, the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy party followed the actions of their adversaries and formed a coalition. The new party was named the Cambodian National Rescue Party. 

This background is necessary as the coalition is publicly supporting the protesters demands for a wage hike.

But a wage hike is always a good thing, right? 

Of course, it is. 

Yet, why the protests.

If one looks back, say, just a few months, the garment workers actually did receive a wage hike. In March, their monthly salaries were raised from 247,237 KHR (Cambodian Riel) to 300,292 KHR. Using this conversion calculator, that is an increase from about $61 to $75. The government also added a $5 allowance for healthcare, raising wages to 320,311 KHR ($80).

But now, it's December, and the protests have started. 

Do the workers have what they want? 

Well, yes again. 

The government promised yet another wage hike (hey, this sounds good) to 380,370 KHR ($95) by April. However (and as mentioned in the previous hyperlink) the opposition has demanded that the minimum wage be doubled immediately for garment workers, and has ignored the government's promise to reach that goal in five years, despite making steps to the goal. 

In this document, penned by the Center for American Progress and the Workers Rights' Consortium, some extra information on the issue is revealed. 

(This was one of the few documents dealing specifically with the wages of garment workers by country and was specifically useful.)

Extraordinarily enough (on pg. 61), the think-tank report shows that garment workers have a unique privilege among the Cambodian labor force, despite their unflattering work:

"In Cambodia the apparel industry is the only employment sector where the government has established a legal minimum wage."

The treatment, however, is not particularly special as garment-making is the backbone of Cambodia's economy, with fabric exports making up about 70% of the total.

But being a garment worker in Cambodia is something of special position, because of the minimum wage floor, and because other workers are paid considerably less than those in that industry.

In 2009, a garment worker could expect to make $77/month with overtime, compared to his countryman, who had a $55/month average, and the one-third of Cambodians who earned about $30/month.

The workers, while being part of the exploited class of people, do earn more than their fellow laborers. 

Yet, as with many political issues today, the situation is being exacerbated by the financial crisis. In the same above-mentioned article on, export revenue plummeted from $250 million to $70 million, a 357% decrease.

So, while the workers, and even their bosses, are facing inflation and the declining revenue, there is some real discontent. But it must be noted, that while inflation in Cambodia currently stands are 4%, meaning that salaries must increase by at least that to maintain their purchasing power, the government's promise to increase the wage to $95 per month from the current $80, would be a 19% increase. 

So where does the fire come from? 

There is due concern, yes. But another player exists in the Cambodian uprising. Most of the subsequent information and focus of this article will focus on this individual. 

Sam Rainsy is the current leader of the opposition party, the CNRP. 

During the most recent elections, on July 28th of this year, Rainsy's party picked up 26 seats to have a total of 55, while the incumbent leader, Hun Sen, saw his party lose about 22 seats to be left with 68. 

As far as general voting goes, Rainsy had about 47% of the popular vote, while Hun Sen gained 49%, keeping him in power.

Despite what South Korea, China, and Hungary called fair elections, Sam Rainsy has been going from place to place saying that the current leader's authority is illegitimate.

This situation came to my attention while the election was going on. I had never heard of Rainsy before, and first saw him on this interview hosted by France 24.

I noticed his distinguished dress, his accented, though ease with English pronunciation, and the fact that he was the "opposition", the "democratic" candidate, who was going up against the "dictator."

Developments in Syria had warned me to take caution with such figures proclaiming themselves to stand-up for peace and human rights and democracy. The Syrian rebels were proclaimed as freedom fighters, but they ended up being cannibals.

However, there was no need to worry about a civil war in Cambodia. No one had called for that yet, except Rainsy! 

Later on that day, I had also stumbled upon another statement by the opposition leader, who openly called for U.S. and UN intervention. 

Intervention with what?

I thought it strange that an election dispute had to be forced to a resolution by a foreign power, and especially the U.S. 

I found it even stranger that a citizen of a sovereign country was so willing to call upon the West to intercede in a part of the world that the West had already done its dirty work in.

So, who was this Sam Rainsy? This is what I had to ask myself. And where does he get these positions from? 

A quick bio led to more, and then more, and then too much. And finally, realizing that certain sympathizers on the left had not done much as far as internet journalism goes to expose this figure, I decided that it was time to go ahead and do it. 

Sam Rainsy is the son of Sam Sary, the former Cambodian Ambassador to United Kingdom, with a checkered history of his own. 

Sam Sary was a sadistic and power-hungry individual. He whipped his pregnant governess/mistress in London, saying that he had the right to do so because he was in "Cambodia in London."

Sary was also directly involved in the Bangkok Plot, which sought to overthrow Crown Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk was hated by Washington, because of his close ties to the communist governments in China and Vietnam, and the CIA sought to overthrow him.

Sary and other rightists, with support from CIA assets, hatched the plot, but failed. 

Washington was happy with Sary's distancing himself from the Prince, especially when he started a newspaper criticizing him. Back in the U.S., they called Sary "the staunchest friend of the United States in Cambodia (pg. 288)."

After the coup attempt, however, Sary disappeared for good, and was thought to have been killed by the CIA.

It was soon after his father's disappearance, that the young Sam Rainsy left Cambodia (like many other opposition politicians) and went to France. He studied at the elite Sciences Po in Paris, earning a degree in political science. He stayed in Paris to collect three more degrees in economics, accounting, and business administration. In Paris, he worked for several investment firms, and eventually set up his own accounting firm.

Upon returning to Cambodia, in 1993, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, effectively ending the civil war, the Cambodian king allowed Rainsy to serve as finance minister.

He promoted free market ideologies and foreign investment. He was removed from power, however, in 1994, for supporting foreign development investment and for attempting to change the authorization protocol of business contracts. The two officials who most opposed him in the mid-90's were Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ronariddh. 

Rainsy then founded the Khmer Nation Party in 1995, ran in 1998, and faced much of the next 15 years continually being brought up on criminal charges, and subsequently pardoned by the king, and allowed to enter Cambodia, only to lose yet another election. 

He was once severely reprimanded for stirring up a border dispute with Vietnam. He was criticized by the government for stirring up racial sentiment, and 10 years later, did it again.

But will Rainsy, despite this, support the wage increase, as promised

As it stands, no, because he has not been successful in winning an election.

But Rainsy has friends in high places. And most of them are in Washington. 

His biggest fans are the International Republican Institute, a group of right-wing thinkers who helped overthrow Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. The IRI has also been involved in funding and training right-wing opposition in Poland and Cuba

Also, there is much dirty dealing as far as elections go. Rainsy must have an ear in Washington due to his extensive IRI connections. Republican senator Mitch McConnell even went so far as include in a Senate bill, an additional $21 million dollars, on top of the already agreed upon $43 million, in extra aid to Cambodia on the condition that Hun Sen lose the election.

Not to mention, the IRI started yet another NGO in Cambodia, this time allowing Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy's opposition partner, to lead it. And if that doesn't sound good enough, how about the fact that the IRI lobbied U.S. lawmakers to put up $450,000 for the cause?

In summary, I don't think that Rainsy is being forthright about his commitment to democracy. No matter how much he slanders Cambodia publicly to the attendance of friends like George Soros, the fact remains that Cambodia has been on the track of development. Growth is expected to increase by a fraction of a percentage point in 2014, and the country, for its context, still retains a healthy export model, though severely lacking in industrial manufacturing. And Rainsy, despite his continual calls to end the country's suffering, actually misses the facts on the ground. 

In a document, produced by the IRI Republican think-tank itself, one of Rainsy's key attacks, which is that voters are being intimidated during elections, is flatly discredited. 

94% say no (pg. 26). They have never witnessed intimidation while voting.

And to note, on pg. 9 of the same document, only 20% of people polled say they are worse off in Cambodia than five years ago, while 55% actually say they are now better off. 

And between August 2006 and January 2013, the percentage of people polled who say that Cambodia is going in the wrong direction has fallen from 37% to 21%.

Could this be because of the wage hikes for garment workers? Which the Center for American Progress (as noted above) showed were $45/month in 2001, and rose to $60 in 2011?

So many of the facts show that Rainsy may be leading the country in the wrong direction. He is being supported by the same republicans that want to slash unemployment benefits in the U.S., and leave the working class in ruin.

I do not think that the West should buy into cries of dictatorship from a Western-backed, pro-globalization, aristocratic candidate. He will not alleviate the poverty of Cambodia, nor will anyone else that foreign interests throw at the situation. And though the garment workers deserve a doubling of their wages (just as Americans yearn for), the Hun Sen government, unlike the U.S., has in fact been meeting their demands incrementally. But for Rainsy and other opportunists, getting a raise every year just isn't as important as seeking power.