The Solidarity Center office is tucked away on a quiet street, basically cozying up to a bunch of houses and family restaurants, away from the bustle of the downtown markets and monuments. The staff is warm and friendly and we eat communal (solidarity!) meals down in the courtyard for lunch every day. Sometimes there’s a lunch break (Khmer) chess game, and I always lose. I tell myself it’s because their queens and bishops can only move one spot at a time but it’s actually because I don’t adapt quickly enough to a new set of rules and structures and I’m stuck doing strategy in the old ones sometimes – this is probably true for all of us but I find this little chess metaphor surprisingly useful.

Phnom Penh is a fascinating place to work, especially in the labor movement. Not unlike in much of the rest of the world, the working poor and the labor movement are demonized to a large extent: when upper management, wealthy, or politically connected figures use their power to set their own compensation at extraordinarily high levels or bargain for higher salaries, that’s seen as the market working itself out and placing a high value on their skills. When workers use their collective power to ask for a wage that’s still well below what most consider a living wage, that’s seen as a distortion and a dangerous manipulation that will lead to unemployment and investors fleeing. And people sound the panic alarms. We’re approaching the garment sector minimum wage negotiations, which happen yearly now, and the government has (probably) planted several articles in the papers trying to scare people into thinking that giving workers a few extra bucks a month is going to cause the Chinese, Malaysian, and Korean investors to pack up their portfolios and run off to Myanmar. I’ve yet to fully grasp what separates the two forms of power brokering and manipulation, other than the fact that one is carried out by poorer people, but hey, lovers of constancy will be glad to know that the labor movement is hated by the ruling class here too! Labor represents less than a fifth of the operation cost for a garment factory but through a coordinated information campaign, it’s now accepted by many that workers asking to be able eat and send their kids to school after a 10 hour day of sewing elbow patches on designer blazers or gluing the soles of basketball shoes is what will cripple Cambodia’s development progress. Workers are pretty routinely scapegoated and blamed for problems that have very little to do with them. An example (I lifted the following graph from an ADB report on Cambodia’s Special Economic Zones):

Nominal and real wages in garment sector .

That nominal increase is nearly $4/day, but the point is that Cambodia has gotten really expensive too and the nominal increases are barely covering cost of living increases. And an uptick in domestic consumption is only a part of the picture of the rising cost of living, and it’s not the garment workers who are consuming at much higher levels. It’s the growing wealthy and financial class, it’s tourism and expats, but the working poor feel this burden the most. It’s also worth pointing out that food inflation has consistently run higher than CPI, and food usually plays a much bigger role in the budget of the working poor than it does for the wealthy. The workers are just asking to be able to keep up with the cost of living. Meanwhile, investors can’t find security from corruption or affordable and reliable energy access, and the full dollarization of the economy makes Cambodia much less competitive on the export market. That’s not even to mention dropping world prices for garments and footwear. None of these factors are the fault of workers who now live in a town where a cup of coffee costs what their daily wage was just a couple of years ago. This is why I find the work I’ve gotten to do this summer so urgent and meaningful.

PMP and GLP 6 month report – deadline work.

I’ve spent the better part of the last several weeks working in various aspects of the informal economy. We just completed a survey, the first step in an advocacy project to get informal workers like Tuk-Tuk drivers, domestic workers, and street vendors access to health coverage and accident protection under the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which has been steadily expanding in scope and coverage over the last few years. It will involve bring this information before the Ministries of Health and Labor, and convincing them that in this time of NSSF expansion, it’s actually a win-win for them to include as many people as possible (and possibly raise the premiums slightly so as to include things like unemployment benefits for workers who get laid off by factory owners fleeing at the end of their corporate tax holidays).

Yes: this happens frequently. Solidarity Center alone has dealt with dozens of these cases over the last few years. They leave abruptly without notifying employees and flee the country because they’re legally obliged to pay workers severance and back wages when they close down, and these payments are tied to the type of contract and the years of experience. When their 5-year deals (designed to encourage new investment) end, they run off and leave the workers without the compensation – sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars spread among all the workers – that they owe them. The most appalling part is that the CDC is so lax about investment and so desperate for cash that sometimes these same owners come back in a year with a different shell company to rinse and repeat. The system works. It’s not that they’re actively trying to sell out the workers but they can’t really challenge these investors and let’s just say the prospects aren’t good for Chinese extraditions of white-collar criminals.

On the issue of NSSF access, we held a focus group to get our numbers and questions in the right ballpark and the income numbers are harrowing: drivers spend a fortune on fuel, repairs, and food, and when you count debt repayment, they’re barely breaking even and sometimes not doing so at all. Of course they all took ill-advised, criminally* high-interest loans from microfinance firms so they’re locked in to these jobs and wouldn’t make it if it were not for spouses’ incomes. And when they can’t make loan payments, they typically grab another, higher-interest loan to cover the first loan’s payments, and so the system goes, fueling its own constant re-creation. They wouldn’t be technically considered bonded labor, but the effects aren’t that dissimilar, especially when you learn the details on how the financing and counseling process ends up going down.

Legal meeting with workers and witnesses.

Working with the informal sector has gotten me thinking about the big picture of the labor movement.

The organization we’re working with makes a valiant effort to organize some of the most vulnerable workers. But the labor movement as a whole may also be falling prey to some of the same mistakes the American labor movement made. When the American labor movement failed to move beyond its fragmented beginnings and unify in a common goal and instead became a tool of racism and xenophobia, and tethered itself too closely to a party that would henceforth have no real incentive to mind its interests and needs because it could always hang its hat on being better than the other party, the movement missed the ship. The Cambodian labor movement is currently failing to move beyond specific trades or interest groups toward openness about class in the same way. Part of this might be related to some of the same prejudices, but it’s probably got more to do with political economy. The CPP is deeply entrenched and to some extent, you’re either its champion or you’re its rabid opposition. Unions have by default largely been seen as opposition forces, and while this might not be bad in and of itself, even the good, independent unions may risk being too closely linked to one political group’s agenda to be what they need to be: advocates for all workers. And more to the point, it makes unions political targets even when they’re trying to avoid any kind of political action. This goes back a way but really intensified during the famous mass demonstrations undertaken by garment workers in 2014.

For example, the garment sector has a minimum wage and it’s definitely not the worst wage you could have by Cambodian standards. Many of the industrial or service unions have also had moderate success in organizing themselves and achieving collective bargaining agreements (with limited gains, but still…), but there still isn’t broad concern about the informal sector. And I’m not making some moralistic argument, though the moral component is important too. It’s a practical point: if the unions ignore the informal sector they make it much easier for their own rights to be violated and for their work to be ‘informalized from above,’ as it were. In other words, it doesn’t seem clear that they always connect the empowerment of all workers to their own empowerment, which again is one of the ways in which the American labor movement has fallen apart. I’d love to see the Cambodian labor movement not repeat those mistakes but there’s only so much to be done right away when these issues are so deeply systemic in nature.

Solidarity in front of the Sihanoukville provincial court.

None of that is intended to sound too daunting – it’s what makes the work feel like it has such import! Such incredibly small improvements in working conditions, pay, and benefits can have such huge impacts, so even when the big picture progress is slow, each incremental gain instills a bit of optimism. And on the point about the labor movement as a whole, there’s an element of excitement in its relative infancy, because it feels like the social, political, and economic climate is ripe for change. Maybe the movement can avoid some of those pitfalls and rally around a common interest in shared prosperity; it’s exciting to imagine what that would look like.

Talking and working with workers and worker organizations has been invaluable, too, as there’s no substitute for understanding people’s situation through their lens rather than your own or that of DC, inasmuch as that’s possible. I’m lucky to have met such inspiring people, who work hard and fight for their rights even at great personal and legal risk. I’ve learned and grown a lot from the experience and I’m really grateful that I ended up here for the summer.

Working on the water in the southern islands.

* Literally. As of a year ago or so, Cambodia put a cap on the interest rates that microfinance firms can charge, so theoretically the days microfinance firms loan sharking Cambodian peasants should be nearing an end. But most people who take out small loans have interest rates of 30-100% annually. Many of them are chasing other loans – taking out loans to pay off loans (interest rates obviously get progressively worse as debt grows).

Sunset on the river in Kampot.

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