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Korean firms sue striking workers in Cambodia/N. Korean-built museum in Siem Reap

Korean garment companies in Cambodia are suing the head of Cambodia’s opposition party and a union for USD 10 million in losses from a strike and subsequent protests. And the Kyunghyang Shinmun doesn’t like it one bit.

Technically, the lawsuit is being raised by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), but the Kyunghyang notes it is Korean companies that have been driving the lawsuit (with Chinese and Taiwanese companies tagging along for the ride—how’s that for cross-strait cooperation!). Unionists have been striking to see their minimum wage immediately doubled to USD 160 a month, and things have been getting ugly, with police killing five protesters and Cambodian special forces being called in to protect a Korean-owned factory.

The Kyunghyang blames Korean garment factories for doing in Cambodia what companies do in Korea—trying to crush labor with big lawsuits. The Kyunghyang is right that this is often used as a way to negate workers’ right to strike, and the ILO has been asking Korea to do something about this for years. I am sympathetic to arguments that sit-down strikes and factory occupations are essentially the illegal seizure of private property, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, according to the Kyunghyang, the protests grew worse—and led to bloody repression—because the GMAC, including Korean companies, refused to negotiate on the wage increase and threatened to move their factories elsewhere. The Kyunghyang worries that the inhumane behavior of some Korean companies overseas might not only harm Korea’s national image, but also bring about something even worse. It also calls on the government to demand that Korean companies in Cambodia respect international standards and universal human rights (Marmot’s note: to be fair to the Korean companies, seeing how they’ve been joined by the Chinese and Taiwanese, it seems they are behaving to international standards, at least as far as respect for labor rights is concerned).

BTW, if you think this has nothing to do with you readers in the States, guess where a lot of this clothing is going:

Nam-Shik Kang, managing director of Phnom Penh-based Injae Garment Co, which employs 3,500, said that despite the new plan, he stood to lose out on profits.

“Our factory currently has a full capacity of orders to fill by February, most of it being material equating to about three million garment pieces. We will send to partners in either Indonesia or Vietnam . . . This is a huge quantity and a very big disaster for us and for others,” said Kang, whose South Korean factory supplies Wal-Mart and JC Penny.

“Even if we ship part of our shipment, about one million pieces, we will incur shipping costs of about $200,000 or even $300,000. And it will not even solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, it appears North Korea’s Mansudae art studio sunk about USD 10 million into building the Grand Panorama Museum near Angkor Wat. North Korea is hoping it might yield profits when it’s done, and at any rate, Pyongyang has something of a special relationship with Cambodia:

At first, it’s hard to imagine why any country would commission an isolated, autocratic government to build a museum of culture in a tourism hotspot. But for Cambodia, whose head of state once called North Korea’s iron-fisted founder “brother”, the news is not so surprising. The mercurial former King Norodom Sihanouk, who in the 1970s was a figurehead for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, forged a close friendship with Kim Jong-Il’s father, Kim Il-sung, who ushered in a similarly brutal communist regime. Between 1979 and 2006, Sihanouk made numerous retreats to Pyongyang, where he relaxed in a 60-room royal palace and shot amateur films.

The “special relationship”, as it was referred to in a US diplomat Wikileaks cable from 2006, has since faded, following the deaths of both Kim Il-sung, in 1994, and Sihanouk, in 2012. The Cambodian government’s attention has turned to South Korea, the country’s second biggest investor. Nonetheless, Cambodia still holds the dubious accolade of hosting the world’s second highest concentration of North Korean overseas operations, after China.

The country is already home to three outlets of the government-run Pyongyang restaurant chain, and a fourth is on the way. The North Korean women who staff them and perform nightly dance shows are believed to be kept inside, under surveillance, and subjected to gruelling rehearsal schedules. The Kathmandu branch, closed in 2011, was found to be a North Korean spy base. Both the restaurants and Mansudae art studio are believed to be at least partly managed by Kim Jong-Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, wife of Jang Song-thaek, who was publicly purged and then executed in December.

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  • kaypride

    who cares?

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    The Kyunghyang is right that this is often used as a way to negate workers’ right to strike, and the ILO has been asking Korea to do something about this for years.

    It’s incorrect to say that holding labor responsible for its conduct is “a way to negate workers’ right to strike”. You can strike all you want, but there may be some consequences.

  • seouldout

    China and Taiwan comply with international labour standards? Bet their employees will be thrilled to learn this. When will they be informed?

    Quite saddened to learn the Nork restaurants are thriving in Cambodia. Had hoped diners, especially those from the South, would shun them.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Labor should be held responsible for financial losses they cause.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Cambodia has Nork restaurants? I guess a visit and a loud toast condemning the fat pig in charge is in order.

  • seouldout

    Sure, when they damage or destroy property. But if they are without contract the employer has no right to compel their labour. Losses due to stoppage are one of the risks of business.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    If they are on contract then the employer does have a right to sue for breech of contract and losses caused thereby

  • seouldout

    I’ve been googlng to determine whether this is a “wildcat” strike or not. Certainly the manufacturers believe they have the right to sue. If this suit goes forward and the judgment goes against labour it’ll be interesting to see how $10m is collected from those who make $80 a month.

  • Todd M

    The race to the bottom continues. Minimum wage for garment workers is just $70-80 dollars a month. According to a report by Labour Behind the Label, Cambodian factory workers consume roughly 1600 calories/day, while 2000-3000 calories is recommended for a ten hour industrial work day. Minimum wage barely covers the cost of the recommended caloric intake. Of course, some workers scrimp on food, so malnutrition is a problem (but only if their productivity decreases, right?) and faintings are common. (Back to work, lazy!)

  • Aja Aja

    You can strike without damaging property, holding people hostages, starting fires, and going general violence. That’s the difference between union members in Korea who believe they are beyond law and order when they strike, versus union members in the west who picket outside standing there all day long, holding placards. It’s not that they’re on strike, it’s how they’re doing it.

  • BK Wagner

    This is a link to video of the location of the Cambodian workers strike outside the Yakjin Korean-owed factory where there was a military crackdown on striking workers:

    At the 1:00 mark there’s a soldier with a Korean flag patch on his left arm (photo attached). My initial thought was that this is a Korean-speaking Cambodian solider there to coordinate with Korean-speaking owners if necessary. Today, however, the Korean embassy put out this notice saying it was “working closely w/ Cambodian military & police . . . to protect our factories”.

    The notice also says it alerted the Cambodian authorities to the situation and asked for “special measures” to protect Korean investments. I’m now wondering if the guy picture was perhaps a Korean special advisor or observer. The video, unfortunately, makes it difficult to see much more than the frame capture. Thoughts?

    Incidentally, the measures undertaken by the military included automatic weapons fire directed at protesters resulting in several deaths. As seen in photos (link below) striking workers weren’t exactly nonviolent, hurling stones and later molotov cocktails.

    The Cambodian opposition party has now filed a complaint with International Criminal Court claiming that the use of deadly force by the military constitutes a crime against humanity: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/icc-complaint-lay-shootings-pm%E2%80%99s-feet

  • RElgin

    The Korean embassy linking this action to “counter-terrorism” is worrisome. The implication is that the Cambodian Government can’t seem to handle security inside of their own country and that the ROK is now involved in augmenting this.
    How is it that the Korean Government should be involved in such a manner, in a foreign country!?

  • BK Wagner

    I don’t think it’s the Korean government linking the action to counter-terrorism on its own. I think the Cambodian government has designated the “국가대테러위원장” (National Director of Counter-Terrorism) as the appropriate person for the Koreans to liaise with concerning protesters. The Cambodian gov has been accused of using its “anti-terrorist” unit this way before:

    [Cambodian opposition leader] describes the Government’s November 28 creation of a special anti-terrorist commission as the second phase of the opposition crackdown begun in the early hours of November 24 [2000].

    “They appoint a commission so that they can point their finger and arrest those people they do not like,” he said.

    “They fear that one day those people will oppose them so they kill or put [them] in jail in advance.”


    Nonetheless, the notice is less than sympathetic toward the workers, the use of deadly force and the deaths that resulted from the crackdown. It should have been worded better, but the Korean government has never been good at PR.

    Fortunately, the foreign apparel brands that the Koreans factory-owners are so anxious to ship to have been somewhat more sympathetic (or at least better at PR).

    H&M, Gap Inc, Inditex, Puma SE, Adidas Group, Columbia Sportswear Company and Levis Strauss & Co have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing “deep concern” over “the government’s use of deadly force” against the striking garment industry workers.

  • BK Wagner

    This article has now appeared:

    “South Korea urged Cambodia’s military to crack down on protesters”

  • RElgin

    The distinction between the DPRK and ROK is growing thinner every year. I wonder if this is not some sort of slow unification process we are witnessing.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Good. Enslave them, if that is whats needed.

  • bumfromkorea

    Well, at least you decided enslaving them wasn’t needed after all.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Its funny that you think living up to agreements you made is slavery. Typical lefty

  • bumfromkorea

    Oh, no, no, no. I was referring to your pre-edited comment. “Good. Enslave them, if that is whats needed.” I believe it was.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    I was using the word “enslave” in a tongue-in-cheak fashion ridiculing the way it is understood as keeping to agreements, and always has been understood by the entitlement champions on the left.

  • bumfromkorea

    Actually, I believe you were responding to “it’ll be interesting to see how $10m is collected from those who make $80 a month. Indentured servitude perhaps.” In that context, your little ass-covering there doesn’t make sense.

    “it’ll be interesting to see how $10m is collected from those who make $80 a month. Indentured servitude perhaps.”
    “Good. Enslave them, if that is whats needed.”
    O – ‘Why not?’
    X – ‘Ha, these liberals and their entitled thinking that keeping to agreements is slavery, LOL’

    What a timing though, huh? I clicked on your comment at the main page to go to it, and it had already been edited.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    I edited it because I realized that there are too many people here who are unable to go beyond the most literal reading of text put in front of them. When people say it is raining cats and dogs I bet you literally believe there to be cats and dogs falling from the sky.

    Again, I used “slavery” to mock the “indentured servitude” part. It is hardly indentured servitude when you breach contract in a massive, organized effort, and cause tangible financial damages and are held to account for your actions. Hold them responsible. I stand by that.


    “Fascism is not something coded for in DNA. You’re just a bitter moron.”

    You wrote this to “The Korean” two days ago, thus demonstrating that you too “are unable to go beyond the most literal reading of text.”

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    TK believes it. Believe me.

  • bumfromkorea

    As much as you believe in enslaving the protesters.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    TK’s #1 fan has spoken.

  • Wedge1

    “Once more into the breech,” said the cartridge.

    [Standing in for an absent Prof. Hodges]

  • RElgin

    Read and consider this news release carefully:

    Tens of thousands of garment workers have returned to work, ending a two-week pay dispute after the authorities used deadly force to quell a strike and thwart a protest seeking a redo of a July election. A union and the garment factory association estimated that 65 to 70 percent of workers had returned to factories by Tuesday. About 350,000 had gone on strike, joining an opposition party in protesting the election, which they contend was stolen by the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Over the weekend, the government cleared the protest and banned all public gatherings.

    Does this sound vaguely familiar to anyone living in South Korea (Korail)!?

  • Pingback: South Korea urged Cambodia’s military to crack down on protesters | Living in SouthEast Asia.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Bum can’t even bring himself to condemn KIS, KJI or KJU.

  • cactusmcharris

    You think those factories were built / those contracts signed for Korean firms without assurances of Korean ‘assistance’ in the event of labour troubles? It’s not unlike United Fruit.

  • seouldout

    Are we sure they are indeed in breach of contract?

    My suggestion of “indentured servitude” was mocking the idea of collecting $10m from those who have nothing. Since they are to return to work perhaps garnishing wages instead.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    If you have nothing don’t go breaking plates and cups in a china shop.

  • seouldout

    That I don’t know. I do know Korean textile and footwear manufacturers have a long and troubled history with SE Asian labour. Beatings. Sexual abuse. You know… routine stuff.

  • BK Wagner

    When Korea puts out one of those doozy statements on the internet, like they sometimes do, you’ve got to act fast and make a screenshot or something. Otherwise, once everyone’s on to it they take it down really quick. That’s what has happened with the links from my comment from yesterday.

    This article, however, has the whole statement from the Korean government and translated into English to boot:

    “South Korean garment industry urged Cambodia to act on striking workers”

  • wangkon936

    Hummm… using possibly clandestine personnel to prop up governments and business interests overseas. Are we sure that South Korea isn’t becoming more like… America?… ;)

  • Cosmin

    Where Cambodia is concerned Korea does seem intent on becoming the bad country it has always accused America of being.

    1. Massive influx Christian missionaries. Check.

    2. Exploitation of local women. Check.

    3, Support for military dictatorship and meddling to protect business interests at the expense of local workers. Check

  • wangkon936

    “… Korea… has always accused America of being… [a bad country]“

    Not all (or even most) Koreans believe this.


  • RElgin

    . . . and that ain’t good.

  • seouldout

    It helps when a crazed neighour sinks a vessel and shells an island.

  • BK Wagner

    Coaxing a military intervention apparently wasn’t enough:

    “Korean companies in Cambodia appear to be preparing to launch a lawsuit against the leader of Cambodia’s opposition party and the labor unions seeking compensation for damages. They claim they have suffered losses reaching $10 million due to disruptions in production and damage to facilities caused by the union’s strike and demonstrations.”