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Chea Vichea Murder Hurt Labor Movement: Experts

An estimated 30,000 workers went on strike last week, demanding more negotiations over salaries they say are too high for the increased cost of living.

Although the documentary “Who Killed Chea Vichea?” does not answer its own question, and although that question is invariably asked by viewers, the producers say one thing is certain: the murder of Cambodia's top labor leader in 2004 hurt the country's labor movement.

The film, which examines the murder of Chea Vichea, who was then the president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was shown at the Washington headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations—the largest federation of unions in the US—last week.

Producer Rich Garella said no improvements in workers rights have come about since Chea Vichea was killed by unknown assailants in 2004.

“The killing of Chea Vichea has weakened the labor movement greatly,” Rich Garella told the audience after the screening. “And it goes to show that a movement is made up of many individual people, but when you have a charismatic leader like that, it counts for a lot.”

A leader like Chea Vichea was able to strengthen the negotiations of workers, he said, while at the same time helping factories boost sales.

Cambodia's workers say they have come under increased pressure from a rising cost of living. Last month, thousands of workers went on a four-day general strike to demand negotiations for better pay.

Timonthy Ryan, program director of the Solidarity Center, said Cambodia has a good labor law compared to other Southeast Asian countries, but it is now under threat.

“The real issue that is happening now is there are attempts to change the labor law and to weaken those workers’ rights provisions, and that's the concern not only of the Cambodian unions, but it’s a concern of the international labor movement,” Ryan told VOA Khmer.

While labor leaders do not face the threats of violence they once did, they still face legal threats, he said.

Hundreds of labor leaders are now out of work following September's strike, as the courts consider legal suits brought by companies.

“The emphasis should be, for workers advocates, not only on the companies, but on the brands who ultimately are buying the products,” Ryan said. Big brands—like Levi Strauss, Adidas, Target, Sears, and others—can ensure owners comply with labor laws, he added.