Cambodian workers rally for a monthly wage of $160 (Photo credit: LICHADO)

Cambodian workers rally for a monthly wage of $160 (Photo credit: LICHADO)

Cambodian labour unions are calling for a nationwide strike in mid-March, as disputes over garment industry wages and government crackdowns on protesters continue.

The calls come as global unions and brands - including H&M and Puma - prepare to meet with the Cambodian government tomorrow (19 February) to discuss the situation in the country's garment industry following police violence earlier this year that left four workers dead.

"It is encouraging that the government has agreed to meet with us and some of the major brands for constructive dialogue," says IndustriAll general secretary Jyrki Raina.

"It is in the interest of all to find a path towards a sustainable garment industry with living wages and freedom of association in Cambodia."

The 16 local unions, including the Cambodia Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) and the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers' Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), announced their intention to strike after a decision last week by the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal to deny bail to 21 protesters arrested in early January.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) said: "We are certainly concerned about the possible strike in March, but we defer to the government to enforce the law as well as expect unions and workers to respect the law when they conduct the strike."

Workers in the garment and footwear industries have been seeking an immediate raise in their minimum wage to US$160 per month. In December, Cambodia's labour ministry agreed to raise the minimum wage from US$80 to US$100 in 2014, with yearly increases reaching US$160 in 2018.

Garment unions rejected the proposal, and worker protests turned deadly in early January as five people were killed and at least 20 were injured when security forces opened fire on protesters at Canadia industrial park in south-western Phnom Penh. The Cambodian government followed up by instituting a ban on public assemblies.

The violent crackdown has brought criticism from global brands as well as organisations such as Human Rights Watch.

A group of brands and unions including Adidas, Gap, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Levi Strauss, Nike and Walmart sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen in January expressing "grave concern" over the killing and wounding of workers and urging the government to respect the rights of detainees and the right to assembly.

GMAC has criticised unions for stirring up tensions and inciting violence.

"These unions represent the minority and if they do not engage in any actions to intimidate and coerce the workers, we hope that the number that will join in the strike will be manageable," Ken Loo told just-style.