Union leaders have admitted they were surprised at the high number of factory workers who returned to the provinces from Phnom Penh to cast their vote in the commune elections.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said the mass migration had taken him aback. “I had not expected the figure to be as high as it was,” he said.
Mr Thorn said the high number was most likely due to people’s greater awareness about their right to vote and the importance of doing so.
“I think they decided to go to the provinces to vote because they felt they could not just stay at home and watch it,” he said. “Social media has also helped to spread a lot of information about the election and generated public interest in it.”
About 70 percent of garment and footwear factory workers registered to vote in their hometowns and just 20-30 percent near their workplaces, he added.
Of those who registered in the provinces about 20 percent did not actually go, either out of fear of retribution by their employers or because they could not afford to make the trip.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, said while the number of workers travelling to the provinces exceeded his expectations, he was still disappointed at those who were too afraid to vote.
“We did not see the authorities make any announcements about allowing additional days off for workers to go to vote. In fact employers threatened to cut their wages and the workers did not dare to take days off out of fear of losing their wages,” he said.
Mr Tola added that factory workers had only started leaving Phnom Penh at 4pm on Saturday.
“Some workers immediately returned to the capital to make sure they didn’t lose any days at work,” Mr Tola said. “Cambodian workers overseas, especially in Thailand, also travelled home to vote – I never expected that to happen.”
Mr Tola admitted he had expected only 20-30 percent to go to the trouble of travelling home from the capital to vote.
The president of the National Trade Unions Coalition, Far Saly, painted a different picture of workers’ dedication to play their part in the election.
He said he went to visit the factories along Veng Sreng Street in Phnom Penh’s Por Senchey district, where most workers had not bothered to vote because they were too lazy to even register.
“Their reason for not voting was that they didn’t have the money to travel,” he said. A garment worker named Chenda said from her home in Prey Veng province’s Ba Phnom district that she was determined to make her vote count in Chhoeu Kach commune.
“I rode my motorcycle to my home on Saturday night and I will be back in Phnom Penh on Sunday night because I have to work on Monday,” she said, “I do not want my company boss to cut my wage.”
Ms Chenda added that she did not register to vote in Phnom Penh because she was more interested in helping her chosen candidate to win and develop her hometown commune.
Three days before the election, several trade unions and civil society organisations sent a letter to Ministry of Labour urging it to order employers to give staff the day off to vote on Sunday, plus a day on either side, to allow people to travel to their hometowns.
At the time, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said new rules allowed people to vote close to their workplace instead, rather than having to go home.