Organizing Cambodia’s Informal Workers

International Labor Organizing

Phnom Penh   34 Days in Exile   

Running to finish every little thing, I left the hotel late to meet Lous Seyda and get a sense of his informal workers association and the “training” program he had invited me to attend. Grabbing the moto, the driver assured me that of course he knew the location across from the old Russian hospital. I knew we were in some trouble when ten minutes later, although admittedly by a completely different ride than yesterday, I was back on 63rd Street. The young driver asked for directions and we made U-turn and headed in a completely different direction. Another 20 minutes of driving as we coursed the city — to my total pleasure I have to admit — and we asked for directions again, and veered to yet another direction. We were passing streets in the 400’s. We were passing waterways and lakes. We could see boats here and slums there. Wide highways and streets became mud roads where we navigated puddles. Miraculously after an hour of driving, one stop for very carefully measured petrol, and many other requests for directions among other drivers in front of marketplaces or in groups waiting for fares, we found the offices of the informal workers, but unfortunately no training session and no Lous Seyda. His children gave many more directions and to my surprise in ten minutes we were at an open air restaurant with hundreds of moto drivers in an awards ceremony.

The event was interesting. It was an awards ceremony where all of the drivers were receiving helmets and vests commemorating the completion of a safety training program for the drivers. This was an NGO type event though with full government participation, lots of speeches, and representatives of the German Development agency that undoubtedly had paid the freight. The drivers loved it. I wonder how long any of them will swear off driving the wrong way against traffic? Not long, I dare say.

Here is the heart of the problem. Interesting organization with good ideas led by well spoken and charismatic man fluent in English and Khmer who no doubt appeals widely to the donor community and understands fully that the informal sector lacks organization and desperately needs to be organized, so he moves forward on a need and with a plan. Unfortunately, the plan is about services which become more fundable by the donor community, rather than about power which is what the informal sector desperately needs to build.

Organizers of the world unite!

Helmets commemorating the completion of a safety training program