Cambodian Worker Victory as a Guide to Effective Worker Protest

By Nicholas Devyatkin

In a remarkable development, Cambodian workers have won back pay from Wal-Mart. Similar to their brethren in the United States, they have used direct protest action and public pressure, rather than traditional union collective bargaining, to force the hand of Wal-Mart.

In September, 2012, The workers were told that the Kingsland apparel factory would close until January, and in the mean time, they would receive 50% of their wages.

By December, the company, veering on bankruptcy, stopped paying the checks, and the workers began public protests. They set up living facilities and occupied the outside of the factory, and stayed there day and night. Walmart and H&M originally claimed that they no longer work with Kingsland. Yet, as one worker pointed out, they “made the profits off of our work, so they are the ones that need to pay.” In the days leading up to a March 1st meeting with Walmart and H&M, the workers began a hunger strike. By March 1st, the companies, through a court monitored bankruptcy proceeding of Kingsland, caved and decided to pay the $200,000 owed in back pay.

Besides the monetary victory, there are tactical lessons to be learned, like the importance of transnational solidarity. The workers had support in Korea and the U.S., with groups like Warehouse Workers United (WWU), protesting at Walmart headquarters, and sending petitions and letters. One Illinois warehouse worker, Mike Compton, who helped win victories against Walmart last fall, put it bluntly, saying that  “We are all in the same fight, whether in Cambodia, Bangladesh, America, Mexico, or anywhere else.”

Another element is that Cambodian workers had support from groups that affect multiple steps in the Walmart supply chain. As Compton pointed out, “It’s time for Walmart to take responsibility for conditions in the factories, warehouses, stores, and everything else in their supply chain.”

A third factor, and most relevant to U.S. labor law, is the use of direct protest action, rather than traditional union style collective bargaining.  Generally, The benefit of seeking union recognition is to bind the company to a plant-wide contract. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) restricts company as well as union behavior. Yet, if workers are not seeking union representation, many of these restrictions do not apply. Groups such as OURWalmart, the Immokalee Coalition of Workers, and WWU are explicitly not seeking collective bargaining agreements or union recognition, and are gaining victories. [;   They have more freedom to engage in various forms of protest, including secondary picketing of the company’s supply chain. These tactics have proven quite successful. Similar to Cambodian workers, American groups are using direct action and public pressure.

The Cambodian worker victory could represent a resurgence of an old paradigm for international workers moving forward. Instead of traditional union oriented collective bargaining, workers can organize across transnational boundaries, and use direct protest to target multiple levels of a company’s supply chain. This combination of tactics could be the way forward for short term, and maybe long-term, victories for global workers. It seems that, unsurprisingly, the organized pressure of the masses can often be enough.