Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.
Today in Cambodia, police opened fire on a crowd of protesting garment workers. At least three people were killed. Eye witnesses said police fired warning shots in the air, and then fired at the crowd. It happened after the protestors clashed with police officers. The protests were part of a national strike by garment workers who are demanding better wages.
I spoke earlier with Katherine O'Keeffe of the Wall Street Journal, who's been covering labor issues in Cambodia. She says today's clashes were a long time coming.
Katherine O'Keeffe: The garment industry workers have, for a while, been working with very low salaries, and activists have said that as the garment industry has grown over the past decade or so, garment workers haven't been reaping the benefits and they are not receiving a living wage. These most recent protests were really sparked by the government's offer of a very disappointing minimum wage on Christmas Eve. That really just propelled some very active strikes, and I think the workers were really outraged by the offer.
Werman: And precisely what do the garment workers want?
O'Keeffe: They've been asking for 160 US dollars a month. The government initially offered 95 dollars a month and only recently have they budged and said, "Well, I guess we can pay you a hundred dollars a month." But obviously that's still quite shy of the request from workers.
Werman: And people have died in these confrontations. Why are the police taking such a tough line against demonstrators?
O'Keeffe: You know, there is a strong political to all this, as well. I mean, workers have been angry for some time, but you have to keep in that the prime minister of Combodia, Hun Sen, who's been in power for awhile and who refuses to step down, is facing a very strong opposition party, and those opposition leaders have close ties with the unions who are driving these strikes. So I think it's a bunch of forces that have sort of blown up at the same time here, and so it's not just about preserving the garment industry, it's also a huge political issue at this point.
Werman: When I hear "garment factory workers," it's hard not to think about the disaster last year in Bangladesh at the Rana Plaza building. Are workers in Cambodia also addressing work conditions, or is it just wages?
O'Keeffe: These particular strikes are focused on wages, but there has been a huge effort to improve working conditions there. Actually that's been my focus over the past few months, is looking into the efforts by a UN group called "Better Factories Cambodia" to improve working conditions in that country. Basically, this group--well, they inspect factories in Cambodia, and they proposed that if they start actually naming the factories in the reports, so that everyone can publically see what factories are doing what. And it's been a huge battle, because the factory association was very against this, and they said it could very hurt the garment industry, but the unions and a bunch of the international retail programs, and the UN group obviously, said, "This is what we really need to improve conditions and hold these factories accountable."
Werman: So Kate, how important is the garment industry for Cambodia's economy?
O'Keeffe: It's huge. It's the most important export industry for Cambodia. Back when Cambodia was recovering from civil war, the garment industry was one of the few things that they could really turn to. And over the past dozen years or so, it's just really exploded. It's not as big as Bangladesh, but I think the first 11 months of this year, exports were about 5 billion US dollars.
Werman: Hmm, wow, that's huge. So what's gonna happen? I mean, how much bargaining power do these garment workers have? Do they have a, kind of, clear end in sight?
O'Keeffe: It's really hard to know what's gonna happen. You know, I've talked to some of the activist groups, and they also don't seem to be sure of the outcome here. Everyone's really standing their ground.
Werman: Katherine O'Keeffe of the Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.
O'Keeffe: Thank you.