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As New Year Holiday Ends, Many Factories Stay Closed

Local villagers pray surrounding the small sand hills, locally called "Sam-ang Phnom", praying to mark the end of Khmer New Year, from April 14 to 16, at Phneat Sampaly pagoda, on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Thursday, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Many factories in Phnom Penh have remained closed following New Year celebrations, but it is unclear whether that is due to a strike called by unions or simply due to extended holidays.

Union leaders say many workers are staying home in a quiet strike, rather than demonstrating, as they continue to push for a raise in the minimum wage to $160 per month.

Mass demonstrations in January led to a brutal crackdown by government forces, during which at least four people were killed. Workers are calling for the release of 21 labor activists who were arrested in the crackdown.

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said he believes this strike will be effective. A majority of factories are closed because workers are refusing to return to the factories, he said.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said about 80 percent of the garment workforce had not returned to factories Thursday, after the end of the three-day holiday. He estimated about half the workers would not work on Friday.

Cambodia’s garment industry employs more than 300,000 people and is a main economic driver of the country’s economy. But workers say they are not being paid enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Not all workers are striking. Phea Ley, a garment worker from Kampong Speu province, said she knew little about the strike, but she said some workers have joined it.

“If there are many workers joining the strike, we may join them as well, but we have no plan to right now,” she said.

Bo Vann, who heads a local union in the Canadia Industrial Zone, said large factories are still closed following the holiday, but he said he thought they would open back up once workers come back from extended holidays. Still, he said, there are some workers who have decided to strike.

Heng Sour, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said the delayed return of the workers was not necessarily because of a strike. “It is normal for workers at most factories to negotiate with owners for extended days off,” he said. “Even without a strike, workers are always late coming to work.”