Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Cambodia’s garment industry represents 90 percent of the country’s exports and employs more than 300,000 workers by some estimates. It survived the 2008 global financial crisis, although job losses were registered across all special economic zones. But despite its vital contribution to the local economy, the garment sector has been facing criticism that it has been able to maintain global competitiveness only at the expense of providing its labor force with better working conditions and benefits. Indeed, the statutory minimum wage of Cambodia’s garment workers is currently the lowest in the Mekong region.

Last year, more than 200,000 workers in the garment sector went on strike in protest over their pauperized working conditions. The government responded by reminding employers to strictly enforce the occupational safety and health standards required by law.

To further highlight the demands of garment workers, the Asia Floor Wage network organized Cambodia’s first ever People’s Tribunal on Minimum Living Wage and Decent Working Conditions early this month. It was also the first tribunal in the Asia-Pacific aimed at establishing a standard on the issue of fair pricing for garment manufacturers and, in particular, strengthening the bargaining power of female workers within the global supply chain.

Aside from the wage issue, the tribunal also discussed the alarming rise of mass fainting incidents in many garment factories. In 2011 alone, the Free Trade Union reported that 2,300 workers fainted in five factories. Initial investigations revealed that many workers suffered from low blood sugar, malnutrition, dehydration, food poisoning and over-exertion. The government later confirmed that the fainting cases were related to poor working conditions in many factories.

During the tribunal, workers in the “fainting factories” recalled how they regularly work for 12 to 14 hours a day while being exposed to strong chemicals in hot and poorly ventilated environments. Most of the female workers said they also have to travel long hours, standing in overcrowded trucks, to get to work each day.

To stop the fainting, factory owners merely need to ensure that occupational safety and health policies are implemented. Specifically, workers should be taught how to properly handle chemicals and electrical equipment. In addition, workers should be given time to rest at the weekend, while any overtime worked during peak factory production periods should be undertaken in compliance with the law.

The tribunal succeeded in articulating the demands of garment workers, but the proposed reforms still need to be aggressively presented to the government and the global clients of Cambodia’s garment factories. Just a week ago, 162 garment workers in a Preah Sihanouk factory were reportedly rushed to various hospitals and clinics after they fainted at work.

A few years ago, there was a global outcry over the recruitment of child workers in Southeast Asia’s infamous sweatshops, an outcry that forced Western companies, employers, buyers, and local governments to sign a pact against this unfair labor practice. Today, consumers should likewise be informed that clothing companies are able to cut the prices of goods at the expense of Cambodia’s fainting workers.

Written for The Diplomat

Indonesia Police Target Teens?

Indonesians are shocked and angered by reports that children accused of petty crimes have been arrested and beaten by the police.

In Soe City in eastern Indonesia, a 16-year-old boy was arrested and charged with stealing and selling eight pink adeniums from a private garden. In the Central Sulawesi capital of Palu, a 15-year-old boy identified as only A.A.L. was beaten by the police and faced a possible five-year jail sentence after he was accused of stealing a pair of used sandals owned by a policeman. In Bali, a teenager was convicted for stealing a wallet containing 1,000 rupiah (11 cents). In Cilacap, Central Java, two men were charged with stealing 15 banana bunches. Deli Suhandi, a 14-year-old boy accused of stealing a phone card worth 10,000 rupiah ($1.12) that he found lying in the street, could face a seven-year prison term.

The initial reaction of many people was to condemn the unnecessary violence employed by the police in apprehending the teenage suspects. Subsequently, symbolic protests were organized by ordinary citizens in front of police stations, courts, and even local parliament buildings across the country. In Soe, 1,000 pink adeniums were deposited by protesters in front of the police station to show support for the young flower thief. Meanwhile, children’s rights activists have began collecting coins to highlight the case of the wallet teenage thief in Bali. In Cilacap, the Muhammadiyah Students Association has launched a campaign that aims to gather 1,000 bananas and demand the freedom of the banana thieves.

But the action that has gained global attention is the “sandal protest,” which saw thousands of ordinary Indonesians throwing worn-out sandals in front of police stations all over the country. The protest was successful and the boy was returned to his parents without receiving a prison term.

The widespread protests reflect the people’s outrage over the human rights abuses suffered by the juvenile offenders and the unfair treatment of the poor by the police. The issue reinforced the perception that policemen are harsh to petty criminals but lenient to big time law violators, especially corrupt public officials. The protests are no longer simply about children’s rights, but also the injustices experienced by the poor.

The protests have the potential to develop into a genuine grassroots movement that could inspire and empower the poor to demand for more democratic reforms in the country. Instead of dismissing the localized actions, the government should be ready to address some of the reasonable demands of the protesters. For example, the passage of Juvenile Court legislation and the adoption of a restorative justice approach in dealing with young delinquents. The president should also order law enforcers to undergo human rights training and review standard procedures for apprehending suspected criminals.

If the police desire the community’s support for the campaign against criminality, they must first erase a reputation of giving rich criminals preferential treatment while condemning the poor to face the full force of the law. Ultimately they need to fulfill their duty as upholders of justice.

Written for The Diplomat

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