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Cambodian garment workers killed, dozens more injured and arrested

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At least four dead workers. Dozens more injured. Twenty-three beaten and arrested. More than 100 still missing. Thirteen workers terminated.

Just for demanding a living monthly wage, $65 a month more than the government was prepared to offer.

“Gunfire killed at least four people and injured dozens more, in an unprecedented crackdown on demonstrators ten days after a coalition of labour unions called for a national strike against Cambodia's garment factories,” said Aljazeera in their January 9 story. 

“The violence followed a Ministry of Labour announcement that the industry's minimum monthly wage would be raised to $95 in 2014, less than the $160 that unions demanded.”

A Free The 23 campaign was launched by trade unions and human rights groups, who also called for a mass rally for January 26 at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

Solidarity rallies were held in other cities around the world, including Toronto.

“The garment sector accounts for more than 80 per cent of Cambodia's exports, and is a lynchpin of the country's economy,” said Aljazeera

“The approximately 600,000 garment workers in the country currently earn a minimum monthly wage of $75, plus a $5 health bonus -- a raise from the $61 minimum wage that prevailed last year in the industry.”

But unions insisted on a minimum monthly wage $160, an end to the violence and freedom for the 23 arrested more than three weeks ago.

“We are boiling hot because of the injustice to our brothers and sisters at home,” said Fa Lim, an organizer with the Cambodian Workers Solidarity Network in Toronto, where a solidarity rally with Cambodian garment workers was held on Sunday in frigid temperatures.

“Workers rights are human rights. Their fundamental rights ought to be respected.”

But that’s not the reality.

Last year, a Bangladeshi garment factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. In Qatar, 382 Nepalese migrant construction workers have died in the last two years. 

Last week in Mississauga, a welder wearing safety gear was killed on the job. One of many who die in the province every week.

“There’s only one way to win justice,” said Unifor National president Jerry Dias. “And that’s when workers from around the world unite to fight against these types of atrocities. We need to take control of our lives. And we need to do that by being aggressive.”

By fighting back when workers are killed or arrested for demanding a living wage. By fighting back when workers are killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions.

“We can’t have workers making $80 a month that work 80 hours a week,” said Dias. “Some of the richest corporations in the world are exploiting workers. And our governments aren’t doing a damn thing about it.”

Not a peep from the Canadian government.

“Did you hear them scream?” asked Dias. “No we didn’t hear a damn thing.”

A mile west of Dundas Square, the site of Sunday’s rally co-sponsored by the Workers’ Action Centre, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and the Cambodian Workers Solidarity Network, used to be the home of Toronto’s garment industry.

For over a hundred years, thousands of workers from every nationality made clothes for the rest of the city, country and the world.

“Yes, they were exploited but they managed to stand up for their rights and raise standards,” said John Cartwright, president, Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

“But the global corporations have stolen those jobs from Spadina Avenue and they’ve taken them to one place after another where workers are exploited and paid less and less and less. And when the workers in Cambodia had the courage and the fortitude to demand a living wage, they were struck down by a dictatorship.”

A corrupt autocracy that came in 160 out of 177 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index, an list that ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be.

“A mere dispute over wages doesn't explain the violence,” said Matthew Yglesias, Slate’s business and economics correspondent in story published on January 3. 

“The deeper roots of the clash are a July election, when Cambodia's main opposition groups forged a united front and mounted the strongest electoral challenge the ruling party had seen in years. The incumbents responded with what international observers say was widespread fraud and stole the vote. The labor protests are linked to opposition politics, and conversely the dispute over wages is seen as a challenge to the regime.”

A regime that killed, beat and jailed workers. A regime that denied workers their rights, dignity and respect in their workplace.

“By the owners and the government,” said Carolyn Egan, resident of the Steelworker Toronto Area Council. 

“So it’s terribly important that we gather on this stormy day in Toronto sending our message across the ocean over to Cambodia.”

A message delivered from a stage on Sunday where workers stood united in their determination to continue to support one another here and around the globe.

“We see workers being attacked all over the world,” said Egan. “In South Africa, Greece, Latin America and right here in Toronto.”

Where workers are fighting for a $14 hourly provincial minimum wage. 

“We know that those in control of our corporations and our government are trying to pass the effect of the financial crisis down to the poor and the working class,” said Egan. 

Trying to push a neoliberal agenda.

“Where workers don’t have rights,” said Chris Ramsaroop, co-president, Asian Canadian Labour alliance. 

“The attacks of workers here are linked to the fights in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Rather than create (free) trade agreements, we should have labour agreements to protect worker rights and democracy.”

The right to a living minimum wage. The right to health and safety regulations. The right to organize without fear of reprisal. And the right to protest without risking one’s life. 

“It’s unjust for state forces to open fire on garment workers who are only asking for a minimum wage increase,” said Winnie Ng, CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

“We need to continue the fight here because if we can maintain the standards then there’s a chance for workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia.”

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