What's a woman worth?: wages and democracy in Cambodia

In demanding higher wages, Cambodian women are refusing the status of the proverbial “second-class (global) citizen,” undervalued and over-determined by gender discrimination. If men take over the frontline of the movement, they will de facto doom its greatest potential in raising wages, along with women’s status and worth. Read in French, Spanish.

Theresa de Langis
7 January 2014
Large crowd of people

Thousands of Cambodian garment workers, mostly women, march on the Ministry of Labor in Phnom Penh for higher wages, Dec 31 2013

For two weeks, Cambodian garment workers, predominately women, have waged a coordinated strike to press for a $160 minimum monthly salary, bringing to a standstill the country’s economic lifeblood. Compared to past strong-arm approaches, the government had shown remarkable restraint in tolerating the peaceful assembly in the nation’s capital of Phnom Penh.  Then, in the afternoon of Friday, January 3, a military special command unit opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles on the demonstration, killing 5 and injuring many more, including people reportedly not taking part in the protest.  A local rights group has called the incident “the worst State violence against civilians in 15 years.” One local international paper has titled its video expose of the scene “Democracy Unraveling.”

What has not been noted is the swift shift in the gender balance of the front-line protesters during the violent standoff.  The labour and wage movement in Cambodia has been dominated by an image of determined and defiant women, who make up 80 percent of the garment factory work force. Yet, in a single day, as events unfolded, that image transformed to one of young men, lobbing stones and Molotov Cocktails at armed security forces and being brutally beaten before mass arrests.  

Ragged line of youths in a street facing off against line of soldiers. Fire in the air.

Young men throw petrol bombs as clashes erupt between strikers and soldiers, Jan 3 2014. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty

While Friday’s crackdown is the single worst incident to ever hit the country’s key garment industry, it is not the first time these workers have been faced with excessive use of force by the state or agents of the state, with impunity, for demanding better working conditions. Yet rarely do these incidents, populated mostly by women workers, make international news. And seldom do the protesters respond with weaponized resistance (counting sticks, stones, and homemade petrol bombs as potential weapons, as the police certainly do).

Accounts over the weekend have been mixed as to the timeline of events and provocation for the clash, but it is clear that any violence on the part of protesters appears to feed into the interest of a government vying to quash what is quickly becoming a serious threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s near 30-year rule. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, defending the soldiers’ action on Friday, said, “This is not a demonstration … this is a rebellion.”

Rebellions—and riots—may be justifiably suppressed in the eyes of the state; it is only nonviolent peaceful assembly that is protected by international human rights law. For this and a variety of other reasons, nonviolent strategic action more than doubles a movement’s chances of reaching its goals.  Women may have a unique role to play, as tempers and tension rise.

Women globally appear less likely to resort to violence, even when faced with excessive force, and appear more likely to press for dialogue and other diffusive tactics. Having women at the front lines and in leadership roles is smart strategy in any peaceful social justice movement, and a fundamental principle in democracy movements motivated by inclusion and equality.

For the labour movement happening in Cambodia today, women’s participation and leadership makes logical sense, since women workers make up the greatest share of protesters. And, women may do much to recalibrate the struggle to less confrontational, more effective, tactics.  Women have much at stake in waging this fight, not only as workers but as women. What on its face is a demand for higher wages and better working conditions is fundamentally an opportunity to reassess women’s social value more broadly. Women necessarily must be the face of that struggle.

The garment industry is a pivotal driver in Cambodia’s emerging economy, with H&M, GAP, Levi’s and Nike only a few its prime customers. Cambodian women labourers are literally the economic backbone of the country.  They hold an immense amount of power. Yet, these same women are also among the most oppressed in Cambodia today.

The global women’s labour history reveals a pattern to this treatment, repeated across countries over the decades. “Feminizing” an industry makes it easy to devalue the labor of its workers, since women universally face gendered wage discrimination. Scholar Cynthia Enloe has argued that women’s work in such contexts is not simply “cheap” when compared to men’s, but aggressively “cheapened” in order to maximize profits in a global marketplace. Such practices are tolerated—indeed, capitalized upon—because abuse and exploitation of women is normalized in societies the world over.

A popular Cambodian saying—“Men are gold, women are white cloth”—points to how women are generally devalued in comparison to men. A recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) monetizes the devaluation in terms of wages, revealing a $25 monthly pay gap between Cambodian women factory workers and their male counterparts—women’s labor is “cheap.” The Cambodian minimum monthly wage, set by the government, is $80, well below the Asia Floor Wage Alliance of $281 per month—women’s labor is “cheapened.”  Factory managers, meanwhile, argue they are pressured by their multi-national customers to keep wages low, despite an increase of 22 percent to about $5.07 billion in garment exports for 2013—women’s labor is grossly and globally exploited.  

Cambodian women appear no longer willing to be compliant in the face of such exploitation.  In demanding higher wages, one can argue they also refuse the status of the proverbial “second-class (global) citizen,” undervalued and over-determined by gender discrimination.   But in doing so, they face the barrel of a machine gun.  One women activist at a recent meeting in Phnom Penh on gender-based abuse I attended, said, “Yes, there is violence against women! It is violence by the government, using its military and police, with guns and batons, against peaceful protesters who carry no weapons!” Equal rights, not sticks and stones, is the best protection is such a scenario.

There is no excuse for a state’s use of excessive, illegal force. Yet, since Friday, the labour movement in Cambodia—previously characterized by women-led nonviolent action—is perched on what could quickly become a spiraling vortex of violence. Men have important roles to play in the garment worker struggle. But, taking over the frontline of the movement, engulfing it with weaponized resistance, will de facto doom its greatest potential in raising wages, along with women’s status and worth, in a peaceful and democratic society.   

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