The crowd in front of the Institute for Foreign Languages is enormous by 9 o’clock, comprised of thousands of mostly young women, though there are young men and older folks as well. Here and there is a monk or two. They stretch for almost a kilometer in each direction down Russian Boulevard, with the crowd still growing, spilling onto side streets, Cambodian flags scattered amongst them. They are garment factory workers protesting the abysmal wages they are expected to survive and support families on. They have demanded $160, and it looks like they’re not going home ‘til they get it. They turned down the government’s recent offer to raise minimum wage from $75 to $95; $95 is still not a living wage, but it did seem like a mild insult.
In the epicenter of the noisy scene is a group of tuk tuks with the strikers’ ringleaders on top, a handful of men and a couple of women. They have megaphones, enormous loudspeakers, and they shout their demands from the tuk tuk roofs. For the first three hours, it is mostly the same two men, looking to be in their 30s, leading the cheers and shouted slogans. Then some drums and music sound, and there is dancing. After the dancing, a young woman appears on top of the tuk tuks, holding a microphone. She gets the crowd riled, her fist raised in the air. Participants and bystanders alike record the scene with their smartphones. RFA and Phnom Penh Post journalists retreat into the coffee shop across from IFL, which is virtually empty…besides me.
I talked to a group of young women just outside the coffee shop, who told me they are from Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, Kandal. The youngest was 16 and the eldest 30, but most were 18 or 19. I wanted to ask them loads of questions, like who were they staying with while they were in the city, so far from home? How could they afford to strike for so long and travel so far to petition their government? How long have they worked in the factories, what were the factories like, what did their families think of their working in them? But they are far from home, indeed, and they look on me with suspicion and perhaps amusement, or puzzlement. Perhaps it is because I’m a short-haired white girl—a ktheuy (a “gay”) for all intents and purposes, and why do I want to talk to them? City folk are more or less comfortable with me, and I have no trouble around the people in the places I frequent, but people from remote villages are another story. I baffle them, and maybe scare or disgust some of them (sentiments I have heard my Khmer friends and acquaintances express about their ktheuy counterparts). Mostly they are too polite to say anything, but they have few qualms, it seems, about giving me the cold shoulder. A few minutes milling around a huge crowd is not much time to gain someone’s trust.
I am impressed by the strikers’ tenacity; strikes have been happening on and off for months now in various parts of the country, but this round of strikes began last Tuesday. Strikes have often lead to protests, which occasionally have turned violent (which is nothing new). In Phnom Penh they have marched to four kilometers to Hun Sen’s building, carrying signs and wearing smiles. Cambodia is not a union-friendly nation, but it would seem that Cambodians see value in them, and in workers’ rights. Enough to fight for them, though their opponents are formidable. The atmosphere of unrest is tangible; these protests are concurrent with the opposition CNRP’s protests against the 2013 national election results. Various other protests over land grabbing, workers’ rights, environmental and other issues occur on what is becoming a regular basis across Cambodia. One wonders how long things can go on like this before something gives…
Here’s hoping for $160 in 2014!