Update: 12:05 P.M., EST Jan. 3
The true cost of global high street fashion is once again in the spotlight after at least four people were shot dead in Cambodia when protesting garment workers clashed with security forces.
Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands have been demanding higher wages over the past week, but events took a nasty turn Friday when workers brandishing sticks, rocks and petrol-bombs fought with police in the capital Phnom Penh. Rubble and burning debris littered the Veng Sreng factory district, according to Reuters.
(MORE: A Tale of Two Factory Disasters: What Cambodia Can Teach Bangladesh)
Tensions were already high after members of the elite 911 Paratrooper Brigade cracked down on a small demonstration outside a Korean-owned factory on Thursday. Soldiers bearing AK-47 rifles reportedly used steel pipes, batons and slingshots to attack the crowd. “It’s quite telling that the Special Forces were used, as they are only brought out when [officials] consider things really out of line,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, tells TIME. At least four monks and 10 other protesters were reportedly detained at the scene.
Friday’s bloodshed is the latest P.R. blow to the global garment industry, which became front-page news following the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, claiming 117 and 1,129 lives respectively. Bangladesh boasts the world’s second largest apparel industry, with garments accounting for 80% of national exports, but the international spotlight on subsistence wages and perilous working conditions has since swayed many retailers to source elsewhere.
With some of the lowest wages in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is absorbing much of this excess. Clothing is the country’s largest industrial sector, accounting for some $5 billion per year in exports and some 400,000 jobs, according to the International Labour Organization. The industry supplies major international brands including Nike, Gap and H&M.
But over the past year, labor unions have stepped up industrial action, and workers are now striking for a minimum wage of $160 per month — twice the current rate. (Six non-government-aligned unions rejected an offer of $100 per month by Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Tuesday.) Strikes are becoming violent with management harassed and equipment vandalized.
(PHOTOS: Bangladesh’s Worst Industrial Accident: Scenes From a Terrifying Tragedy)
In addition, ever since Cambodia’s general election of July 28, the issue of garment worker wages has become a political football. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of strongman Hun Sen, prime minister for some 28 years, won 68 out of 123 legislative seats at the ballot box. However, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claims it was defrauded out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power. The CPP closely controls all major institutions including the military, police, judiciary, media and even the watchdog National Election Committee.
The CNRP has been championing higher wages for garment workers in order to spur mass mobilization for a fresh ballot. Many labor unions have long supported the CNRP, but others have recently joined opposition protest after its electoral pledge of a $150 minimum wage was increased by an additional $10.
Whether increasing pay would be beneficial, or even realistic, remains unclear. With Bangladesh’s new monthly minimum wage set at just $68, and emerging sectors in Burma, recently free of crippling economic sanctions, also threatening to pinch orders, many doubt there truly is room for such a drastic bump in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says Ou Virak. Professor Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, agrees: “It is more likely the CNRP offer was a political one designed to win over the garment workers to its side in an effort to bring down Hun Sen.”
(MORE: As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed)
The ILO has also stopped short of backing worker demands, but still advocates an annual review of the minimum wage. “The current unrest highlights the necessity for Cambodia to adopt a more modern and robust minimum-wage-fixing system based on international good practices, using objective criteria and data,” read a statement released on Thursday. (Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, declined to comment when contacted by TIME.)
Certainly, with apparel forming such a vital part of the national economy, losing these jobs could be disastrous. Most garment workers are young women from rural provinces who are unlikely to return home to a life of farming, and have precious few other options. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.
On Friday, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy denounced the latest crackdown. “It’s an unacceptable attempt to break not only a worker strike but the whole worker movement as well as the democratic movement, which is developing in Cambodia following the July elections,” he said. Certainly, workers feel they are underpaid and many struggle just to survive. However, the jury’s out whether the opposition’s promises are truly the answer, or just another cynical attempt to exploit them.