Written for The Diplomat
Rice is a staple food in Southeast Asia, which explains why many politicians panic when rice farmers are agitated or when consumers complain about high prices. Today, rice farmers in Thailand are protesting after the national government repeatedly failed to pay them under the rice pledging program. In the Philippines, the issue of unabated rice smuggling has alarmed many sectors, prompting government agencies to conduct a thorough investigation about the matter.
Introduced in 2011 after the election victory of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the rice subsidy program involved the government buying the rice output of local farmers at a high price before reselling it to the global market. The program was meant to improve the savings of farmers, although critics derided it as a wasteful populist policy.
The government reduced the subsidy price six months ago to offset the huge losses incurred by the program, but farmers were still assured that they would get paid for their products. But the money didn’t arrive and in fact the delayed payments have already reached 130 billion baht ($4 billion) affecting more than a million farmers.
Burdened with rising debt, desperate and angry rice farmers marched to Bangkok last week demanding payment from the government. They blocked several roads near Bangkok and camped in front of the Ministry of Commerce.
A majority of the farmer-protesters are not affiliated with anti-government groups behind the Bangkok Shutdown campaign, but their arrival in the city has intensified the country’s political crisis.
The opposition has expressed support to the protesting farmers and has initiated a donation campaign to help sustain the protest in the city. The opposition is also blaming corruption under the Yingluck government for the present suffering of rice farmers.
For its part, the government said it was unable to pay farmers because of the ongoing protests.. It urged protesters not to block or occupy government banks.
The government also assured farmers that it would find a way to deliver the payments. It also rejected criticism that the rice subsidy program has become a disastrous populist policy, stating that “[the] ultimate goal of the rice pledging scheme is not the government’s popularity, but simply the upgrade of income security for the better lives of farmers, and for the better future of our posterity since rice farming means growing the better future on our own land without any impact to the country’s monetary and fiscal disciplines.”
Yingluck cannot afford to ignore the farmers since many of them came from villages that supported her party in the recent election. But she should also heed the advice of many economists who earlier warned her administration that the rice subsidy program needs to be revised.
Moving on to the Philippines, rice smuggling has resurfaced as a top political issue after it was reported that 50,000 metric tons of rice was smuggled into the country weekly in 2013. The Philippines was the world’s top rice importer in 2011.
In response, Congress has conducted a probe to pinpoint the suspected rice smugglers in the country. They also urged the government to fast track the resolution of the 157 rice smuggling cases.
“Smuggling is hurting our economy and it is hurting severely the livelihood of our poor rural farmers, who spend their entire days toiling under the sun to ensure that we would have food on our table, only to be thwarted by those who engage in rice smuggling,” said Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Recently, the Department of Justice claimed that it has already arrested the “king of rice smugglers.” But some are doubtful if the government caught the real mastermind behind the smuggling ring. Local traders are also demanding the arrest of other rice smuggling syndicates who are in cahoots with local politicians and customs officials.
What is further needed is the stamping out of corruption in the government’s rice importation program. Perhaps President Benigno Aquino III, who promised rice self-sufficiency before the end of his term in 2016, should look closely into the issue.
Thailand’s protesting rice farmers and the Philippines’ rice smuggling scandal demonstrate why rice is more than just a staple food in Southeast Asia. It is an important political commodity that can affect election results and even ignite a social uprising.
Protests, Strikes Continue in Cambodia
Written for The Diplomat
Garment workers, teachers, and garbage collectors in Cambodia have launched a series of protest actions since December to demand substantial wage hikes and an improvement of their working conditions. The strikes exposed Cambodia’s mounting labor woes and worsening political crisis.
Garment workers conducted a nationwide strike last December to push for a monthly minimum wage of $160, the amount needed to survive in Cambodia based on an estimate provided by the government. Garment workers receive a monthly basic pay of $80. The garment sector is a $5 billion dollar export industry in Cambodia which employs more than 600,000 workers.
The Ministry of Labor said the full wage demand can be granted only in 2018 and a $15 wage hike is more feasible today. Strikes erupted over the measly increase; and the striking workers were later joined by the opposition party which has rejected last year’s election results and has been mobilizing thousands for several months already to call for the ouster of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In response, the government agreed to a $100 minimum wage ($95 basic pay and $5 food allowance) to be implemented next month. But this was rejected by union leaders who vowed to hold more strikes and factory shutdowns.
On January 3, the government ordered a crackdown on the strike. Police violently dispersed and arrested the striking workers. The protest camp of the opposition was also forcibly removed and public gatherings were banned in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. As of February 14 the ban is still in effect after police invoked the policy when it denied a permit to the global One Billion Rising campaign.
The protest crackdown resulted in the deaths of four people and the arrests of 23 workers and activists; 38 were hospitalized during the dispersal, with 25 suffering from bullet wounds.
The strike by garment workers probably inspired teachers to demand a monthly pay of $250 after many teachers complained that they only receive $75 each month. According to the Cambodian Independent Teachers Union, there are 87,000 teachers in the country. Scores of teachers refused to work for a day or two in several provinces, although these protests were small and uncoordinated. Still, the demand highlighted the low salaries of educators which shocked and enraged many people.
Meanwhile, trash piled up for three days in Phnom Penh early this month when more than 400 garbage collectors went on strike to demand $150 in monthly pay, a health bonus, and an overtime pay during weekends. The strike involved workers of Cintri, a subsidiary of the Canadian Firm Cintec, which signed a 50-year exclusive contract in 2002 to collect Phnom Penh’s trash.
After several rounds of negotiations and days of mounting trash in the city, both parties came to an agreement. Street cleaners will now get $90 per month and truck drivers will receive $130. In addition, a health care center will be funded by the company. The uniform fee charged against employees will be scrapped.
The labor strikes in the past two months revealed the degradingly low wages given to Cambodia’s workers. They also gave us a glimpse of the inhumane working and housing conditions of workers, which partly explains why they are easily persuaded by the agitation propaganda of various political forces. But with or without the backing of the opposition, workers have legitimate grievances that the government must quickly address. It’s unfortunate that instead of understanding the situation of workers, the government responded with violent impunity.
Hopefully, the end of the strikes won’t stop policymakers and employers from looking for positive ways to improve the welfare of workers. The strikes may have yielded a slight increase in the basic pay for garment and garbage workers, but that pay is still woefully inadequate to meet the daily cost of living in the country.
Continued increases in the cost of living, as recently lamented by some garment workers, Cambodia may soon face more protests and provocative actions from the labor sector.