The Cambodian garment industry remains at a crossroads in the wake of last week’s violent government crackdown on striking laborers. The ten-day strike, called by labor unions to protest the garment factories’ minimum wage, ended abruptly when police opened fire on a crowd of workers in an industrial park on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Four were killed, and many more injured and detained, in a government response that garment union leaders described as “beyond belief”. The incident has drawn the attention of the global media and placed pressure on both the Cambodian government and the apparel retailers who buy from factories in the country.
This drama is playing out in the larger context of a global struggle in which apparel companies are being forced to redefine their approach to labor rights. Working conditions, safety, and wages have been under constant media scrutiny in Asia since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, last April. The pressure from this incident and the subsequent strikes focused apparel retailers’ attention on labor rights and has led to increasingly public and rapid responses to incidents and general concerns.
Many apparel retailers were largely caught off guard by the tragedy and strikes in Bangladesh. Last week, they lost no time in acting. Seven major apparel companies, including H&M, Gap Inc., and Adidas, responded to the incident in Phnom Penh by writing an open letter to the Cambodian government, condemning the violent crackdown. This action shows that many retailers are aware that their very brand value is at stake.
However, if a compromise is to be reached on the issue of a higher minimum factory wage, these corporate giants will need to be present throughout the process of negotiations. While this letter rightfully condemned the violence, a tangible follow up is needed in which the companies take on some of the responsibility, rather than merely assign blame. The next few months will be crucial, not just for Cambodia, but for the entirety of the global garment industry.