Labor Rights and Trade Unions in Cambodia

Authored by: Dennis Arnold , Dae-oup Chang

The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia

Print publication date:  September  2016
Online publication date:  September  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138831186
eBook ISBN: 9781315736709
Adobe ISBN: 9781317567837


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Capitalist labor and trade union history in Cambodia is recent. Any serious consideration of a working class begins in the mid-1990s and today many workers remain partial-proletarians, with interests and identities largely agrarian in orientation and not fully divorced from rural livelihoods. This can be explained by Cambodia’s peculiar modern history. In the French colonial era, Cambodia largely remained a rice-exporting “backwater” with limited infrastructure and other fixed capital investments. It was private investors in the plantations of the early twentieth century who initiated the development of wage labor by importing foreign workers. When France turned Indochina into a vast plantation for primary commodity production such as tea, rice, pepper, and rubber as well as mineral mines, Cambodia, located at the periphery of French Indochina, also attracted private investment for rubber plantations, worked by Vietnamese workers (Elson 1999, 155). Cambodia’s post-colonial development led by the constitutional monarchy was short-lived as Cambodia was dragged into the US-induced war in Vietnam, which sparked over 20 years of conflicts in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea was a disastrous attempt to build a utopian agrarian communism that almost entirely eliminated any industrial capacity, while radically transforming Cambodia’s limited capitalist labor to agrarian bonded servitude.

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