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Workers across Asia mark May Day with street protests

Events subdued in South Korea, where gathering instead paid respect to victims of Sewol ferry disaster; 219 bodies now recovered, 90 still unaccounted for.

01.05.2014
Workers across Asia mark May Day with street protests

By Kate Bartlett

PHNOM PENH (AA) - Workers across Asia turned out en masse Thursday to mark International Labor Day, with just one rally in the Cambodian capital briefly turning violent.

At least five people were injured at a banned event in Phnom Penh after government-hired security turned on protesters and journalists.

The peaceful rally had consisted of about 1000 workers, as well as supporters and members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party - which has strong links with trade unions - before it was broken up by plain-clothes security guards who appeared to randomly lash out at protesters with sticks and metal pipes.

“I saw with my own eyes five people get beaten up and injured,” Am Sam Ath, a rights worker from NGO Licadho, told local newspaper The Cambodia Daily. 

“But I think that many more people got injured than this number, because they were beating people in different places and at least 100 security guards were involved,” he added.

Cambodian authorities had forbidden any rallies marking International Labor Day from going ahead, as public gatherings have been banned in the country since a January protest by thousands of garment workers demanding higher pay saw police shoot five workers dead.

Garments are the country’s main export industry, with hundreds of factories producing clothing for high-brand stores such as H&M and Gap. Workers have been calling for a minimum wage increase to US$160 a month, saying the US$100 they make is not an adequate living wage.

“Human rights in Cambodia’s garment factories are now more often than not ignored and abused by employers," the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement marking May Day. 

"The garment industry is now plagued by poor workplace and living conditions, insufficient wages, job insecurity, gender-based violence and widespread violations of freedom of association and union rights,” it added. 

In a statement ahead of the protest, Human Rights Watch slammed the Cambodian government’s treatment of unions, saying the government “appeared to be sharply limiting registrations of unions, which could harm workers who depend on union protection.”

In Myanmar, hundreds took to the streets to call for better working conditions in a country where until recently labor rights were brutally restricted by a military regime.  A bill passed by a reformist government in 2011 allowed for the formation of large trade unions and ended a ban on strikes, overturning oppressive labor laws that had been in place since 1962.

About 200 people rallied outside the City Hall in Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital, while another protest took place in Mandalay. In Yangon, the Myanmar Trade Unions Federation honored survivors from strikes in 1974, which turned bloody when troops mowed down about 100 workers and students.

Aung Lin, the federation’s chair, warned there was a long way to go despite the 2011 law. “Labor conditions in Burma are still inadequate and there is a lot of room for improvement regarding basic rights like fair wages,” he told the Democratic Voice of Burma. 

Workers across Indonesia also took to the streets Thursday to celebrate May Day - the first time in the country's history it has been honored with a national holiday. 

In the capital Jakarta, thousands marched from a traffic circle outside the Hotel Indonesia to the State Palace, waving banners and calling for a rise in wages. 

Trade union leader Said Iqbal asked the government to raise salaries by 30 percent, saying the country's minimum wage remains behind that of Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, in Thailand itself, thousands of workers from two major labor organizations gathered near parliament in Bangkok’s historic quarter to claim for higher wages and better benefits for workers nationwide. 

They were joined in the afternoon by anti-government protesters of the People Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by former opposition MP Suthep Thaugsuban.

Suthep took notes of the demands of the workers’ representative and promised that they will be take into consideration once a “people’s government” was established after the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. 

The PDRC has taken to Bangkok streets for six months to call for Yingluck’s resignation.

Suthep and other PDRC leaders took part in a traditional "ramwong" Thai dance with workers, and kicked buckets decorated with images of the premier and various government ministers. Yingluck, elected in July 2011, raised the minimum daily wage to 300 baht (7 euros) in her first few months in office, a measure that was criticized by the opposition as being “detrimental to the overall economy.”

In Malaysia, around 20,000 people - many clad in red blowing vuvuzelas - gathered in central Kuala Lumpur to protest against a new goods and services tax and Malaysia's long-governing coalition.

The government has said the 6 percent tax will boost revenue and curb rising debt, however protesters Thursday claimed it will lead to a rise in the price of goods and inflict further hardship on the poor.

Protesters - among them opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim - accused authorities of cronyism, corruption and stifling free expression, and attacked the government over a court ruling that saw Ibrahim sentenced to five years in jail on a Sodomy conviction.

“I want to remind the prime minister to not be cruel to the people and Anwar. Do not touch Anwar,” Azmin Ali - the deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat - said.

Protestors also used the occasion to criticize the government for the still-unexplained loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH570 - a preliminary report into which the government is due to release Thursday.

In the Philippines, marches were peaceful but some protesters used color to express emotion, their red shirts symbolic of the collective anger they said they felt at the “elitist regime of [President] Noynoy Aquino and its neoliberal economic policies.”

Members of militant labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino gathering in the capital Manila said such policies hurt poor workers, and claimed Aquino's administration - half-way through a 6-year term of office - has not delivered on its anti-corruption, pro-poor promise.

Events were subdued in South Korea, where 5000 protesters had been set to rally in central Seoul - the South Korean capital - but the throng instead paid respects to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster.

They held a minute's silence for those on board when the ferry sank off the country's southwestern coast April 16. Of the 476 passengers on the ship, 219 bodies had been recovered as of Thursday evening and 90 were still unaccounted for.

Protesters also offered condolences at one of several public memorials that have been set up nationwide for the victims, many of whom were high school students.

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