Low-wage garment workers fight giant retailers

Just 22 days after the horrific Rana Plaza building cave-in killed more than 1,127 Bangladeshi garment workers, two workers died and many were injured when Wing Star factory’s ceiling collapsed on May 16 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Western retailers purchase sneakers made there for the Acics brand.

Four days later, 23 workers were injured when a warehouse fell down at Top World, a clothing factory near Phnom Penh owned by a Hong Kong firm. It’s a prime supplier for Swedish retailer H&M.

These “industrial accidents” are stark reminders of the dangers faced by the global garment workforce. They show that Bangladeshi workers are not alone in being subjected to unsafe working conditions — and confirm that in the mad rush for profits, capitalists will cut costs wherever they can, using the flimsiest construction materials and sacrificing workers’ safety, while paying them little.

However, these workers are militantly struggling against their exploiters, despite the risk of repression. Strikes and other protests occur regularly, for higher wages and safer workplaces, and to defend labor unions. The strength of this segment of the working class was shown when thousands of garment workers from 16 unions and associations marched on May Day in Phnom Penh, asserting their rights.

The Cambodian Allied Workers’ Democratic Union is campaigning for an increase in the garment industry’s monthly minimum pay from $61 to a living wage of $150. Many workers must feed families on these “starvation” wages and live in dire poverty.

Women workers face up to riot police

On May 29, 3,500 determined workers demonstrated for higher wages at Sabrina Garment Manufacturing’s factory near Phnom Penh — in spite of vicious repression two days earlier. Military police in riot gear and brandishing electrified batons injured at least 23 workers on May 27, causing one pregnant worker to miscarry. Officers attacked a 3,000-worker sit-in of mostly women on a road outside the plant — a producer of sportswear for the U.S. company Nike and Canada’s Lululemon Athletica.

The workers have been on strike since May 21 to pressure these brands, especially Nike, to increase their monthly $74 minimum wage by another $14 to help the factory’s 5,000 employees pay for transportation, rent and health care.

The battles are sometimes dangerous. On Feb. 20, 2012, Bavet town governor, Chhouk Bandith, shot and seriously wounded three women workers during a 1,000-person strike for higher pay at Kaoway clothing factory in Svay Rieng. Its main customer is German retailer Puma.

Only when the women fought the dropping of all charges against the gunman did a court indict Bandith, but on a minor charge. Moreover, the women’s actions, backed by public support, pressured Puma executives — who had previously done nothing — to pay their medical bills and agree to raise the minimum wage. Bandith was fired, too.

This struggle won’t end until Bandith is punished. On May Day, the Community Legal Education Center issued a statement addressed to the “International Garment Brands Sourcing from Cambodia.” Signed by 22 Cambodian unions and labor and human rights organizations, the statement demands justice.

The United States ruthlessly bombed Cambodia from 1965 to 1973 in its goal to colonize Southeast Asia and defeat pro-socialist forces. No reparations were ever paid for the enormous devastation this caused. Transnational corporations now aggressively invest in this poor country and garner megaprofits by superexploiting its labor force.

Cambodia’s apparel-making industry has enriched global retail giants that purchase its products, including The Gap, Walmart, Zara, Adidas and Levi’s, in addition to H&M, Nike and Lululemon Athletica. The 500 garment and shoe factories provide 75 percent of the country’s exports, annually garnering about $4.6 billion. These goods are mainly shipped to the U.S. and Europe, with footwear also going to Japan.

Women aged 18 to 35 form 90 percent of the 500,000-strong garment workforce. They are plagued by malnutrition and bad health. Poor ventilation, unhealthy heat levels, and exposure to toxic chemicals are rife in factories, where fainting is common. Even the availability of drinking water is insufficient. Fire safeguards are inadequate, too.

Labor activists criticize the government for doing little to improve plant safety and say that more disasters are waiting to happen. Tola Moeun of the legal center emphasizes, “Workers in Cambodia and globally … are in fear of their lives when they go to work.” (cleanclothes.org,
­May 16)

In today’s “race to the bottom,” corporations comb the world for the cheapest labor and lowest costs, such as for workplace safeguards — all to maximize profits. They disregard workers’ human rights and economic needs. The May 15 New York Times reports some transnational companies are looking for cheap labor sources outside Bangladesh not because of workers’ deaths but because of “street clashes and politically motivated national strikes.”

Brutal, low-wage capitalism isn’t a policy. It’s endemic to the system. Impoverishment of the global workforce is key to the corporate drive for superprofits. The worldwide working class must be supported in its just struggles for decent wages and working conditions. But the ultimate goal must be to abolish this inhumane system altogether.