Why Cambodian Cops Are Shooting Garment Workers Over the Minimum Wage

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 3 2014 8:54 AM

Why Cambodian Cops Are Shooting Garment Workers Over the Minimum Wage

460277401
Veng Sreng Boulevard stands empty of protesters after clashes between protesting garment workers and police on Jan. 3, 2014, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images

We have plenty of political disputes in the United States about the minimum wage, but a Cambodian demonstration in favor of higher pay today ended in violence as police shot and killed three protesters. How does it come to this?

The Cambodian economy has been growing very rapidly: Cambodia is extremely poor and doesn't dominate the headlines the way China does, but has been enjoying a China-esque prolonged spurt of rapid economic growth with GDP per capita tripling since 2000. That kind of growth is always welcome, but the fruits have not been evenly shared. Cambodia ranks extremely poorly on the Corruption Perceptions Index, coming in at 160 out of 177 countries and well behind Vietnam (116), Thailand (102), or China (80).

Advertisement

The main export industry is garments: The garment industry accounts for something like 80 percent of Cambodia's exports and it's growing like crazy, up 32 percent year on year.

Workers want a bigger piece of the pie: As is often the case in societies that are still largely preindustrial, factory owners can exploit the huge gap between the productivity of factory workers and the average productivity in the countryside to reap large profits. Until recently the minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers was just $61 a month, recently raised to more like $80, but labor groups say they want $100. According to the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, earnings in rural Cambodia are considerably below that (PDF) coming it at about $500–$600 per year.

The government has no legitimacy: A mere dispute over wages doesn't explain the violence. The deeper roots of the clash are a July election, when Cambodia's main opposition groups forged a united front and mounted the strongest electoral challenge the ruling party had seen in years. The incumbents responded with what international observers say was widespread fraud and stole the vote. The labor protests are linked to opposition politics, and conversely the dispute over wages is seen as a challenge to the regime. 

Hun Sen is no ordinary dictator: Cambodia has been ruled for decades by an authoritarian regime under the control of Hun Sen. At one point it was a Soviet-aligned communist dictatorship; more recently it's revived the monarchy and ditched socialism. But the really interesting thing is that Hun came to power as the Cambodian face of the Vietnamese military, which invaded the country to depose the Khmer Rouge. So on the one hand, Hun was a puppet of a nearby foreign country, which is never great branding. On the other hand, he did depose quite possibly the most brutal and evil government the world has ever seen, which is pretty solid branding. Throughout the 1980s the perversities of Cold War politics led the major western powers to deny recognition to Hun's regime in favor of assistance to the Khmer Rouge.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.