PHNOM PENH —
Tens of thousands of workers protested in front of the Ministry of Labor on Monday, after negotiations between labor leaders and the government failed to find a resolution to demands of higher wages in the face of a rising cost of living.
The worker protest coincided with yet another opposition rally at Freedom Park, in the center of Phnom Penh, where opposition protesters are calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down and for a recall election to be held.
About 1,000 opposition protesters gathered at the park, but leaders of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party said they would take a break Monday from marching through the streets.
Taken together the worker and opposition demonstrations march a significant challenge to the authority of Hun Sen’s government, which the opposition says won a stolen election.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Monday called for worker demonstrations to cease immediately, or face legal action.
Six trade union representatives met for nearly two hours Monday morning with officials from the Ministry of Labor, though the two sides failed to agree on negotiation points. Workers want a gradual increase in the minimum wage, up to $160 per month, by 2018, across the nation’s factories, which employ up to 400,000 people.
Thousands of protesting workers shut down more than a kilometer of road on Russian Federation Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the capital.
“The government has to set a minimum up to $160 if employers do not come to it,” said Ath Thun, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.
After negotiations failed, workers continued to protest through the afternoon, in front of the Council of Ministers building and the Ministry of Labor, where hundreds of riot police stood by barbed wired to prevent protesters from entering government buildings.
Keo Remy, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, said he would assist employers in negotiations.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers association, led demonstrations and said the protests would not stop until salaries are raised.
On Sunday, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, which represents factories and their managers, issued an open letter, accusing six unions of promoting violence in the strikes and claiming the government had not done enough to curb the demonstrations.
Ith Sam Heng called for an immediate halt for demonstrations, including the destruction of factory property and the blocking of traffic.
Meanwhile, the UN’s special human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, called for restraint in the ongoing demonstrations, which have continued over the last two weeks.
“Demonstrations such as those of recent days and weeks are a new sight in Cambodia,” he said in a statement. “I am pleased to see that the democratic space has increased to such extent that so many Cambodians feel comfortable to express themselves in the streets without fear of retaliation.”
He urged government authorities to “continue to facilitate peaceful demonstrations and exercise restraint toward protesters” and called on demonstrators “not to resort to violence.”