PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen has become a fixture recently at the garment factories that cluster on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Smiling for selfies, ironing clothing and promising a raft of worker benefits, the strongman leader is wooing the 700,000 mostly female workers who drive the country's most lucrative export sector.
There is nothing out of the ordinary in a politician hitting the campaign trail. But the intensity of Hun Sen's focus -- after 32 years in power, and at a time when his government is moving to disband the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and sideline its leaders ahead of elections in 2018 -- has raised eyebrows both within and outside the industry.
"It is quite strange, isn't it?" said 48-year-old Roeun Sopheak, a garment worker since 1999, who recently attended a speech by Hun Sen to a 10,000-strong audience at Canadia Industrial Park. "It's a very new thing I'd never heard of, and [we] never received such promises before," she said.
Hun Sen's charm offensive comes as opposition leader Kem Sokha is being held in a maximum-security facility near the Vietnamese border on treason charges, facing up to 30 years in prison if convicted. About half the party's 55 lawmakers have fled abroad, and the ruling Cambodian People's Party has pushed through legislative changes allowing it to dissolve the CNRP and redistribute its seats to unelected minor parties.
The crackdown -- which has also affected independent media and non-governmental organizations -- follows a strong showing by the CNRP in nationwide local elections in June, but has its roots in the opposition's surprise near-victory in the last legislative election in 2013.
Led by independent trade unionists demanding higher wages, garment workers played a key role in post-election protests that continued for months. The demonstrations came to a bloody end when security forces fired into a crowd in January 2014.
Even before the election, many protesters had taken new political perspectives from the liberal capital back to their rural villages, effectively acting as conduits for CNRP policies, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia." "A lot of them went home bearing CNRP messaging," Strangio said.
In the wake of the turmoil, a committee representing the government, trade unions and garment manufacturers approved incremental annual increases in the minimum wage, from $80 a month when the strikes began to $153 in 2017. Hun Sen, who has kept a close watch on the negotiations, decided in early October that wages would increase by a further 11% to $170 a month from Jan. 1.
As well as promising free bus rides on Phnom Penh's public transport system, pressure on landlords to keep down utility bills and $100 bonuses for pregnant workers, Hun Sen has told workers they will no longer have to make $3 joint contributions to the National Social Security Fund each month. Instead, employers will foot the monthly bill of $6 per worker.
"He wants garment workers to know who's buttering their bread; he wants them to know that any wage hikes or increases to benefits that come, come from Hun Sen, not from union leaders who might act as an alternative source of authority," Strangio said.
"Union leaders have historically been some of the most galvanizing and popular figures in Cambodian political life ... and I think that the government has always seen them as a threat."
The government has agreed to meet calls from the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia to provide tax breaks to offset the cost of the new measures, including delaying the implementation of a new tax for five years and scrapping an existing tax.
But GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo, who represents about 500 major export factories, said rising labor costs have made the sector "unprofitable."
"In 2016 and this year we're having more factories close than new ones opening up in the country, which is obviously a sign of the rising cost of doing business in Cambodia," he said.
The number of registered export factories fell by 10.4% in 2016, compared with the previous year, according to a report published in May by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency. The ILO said this could be attributed in part to an increase in the number of subcontracting factories, but warned that the situation should be "carefully monitored."
Asked how the government would balance workers' needs with manufacturers' need to maximize profits, Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said: "This government doesn't see factory workers as a tool for politics, but as people, as Cambodian people who can play an important role in the free market."
He added: "[Hun Sen] listens to them, what they need, what their obstacles are."
Loo said the industry could not absorb continued increases in wage costs. "If the trajectory [of wage increases] continues, then in three years we would have wages doubling again," he said. "Then all the factories would close down. For sure."
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether Hun Sen's efforts to win over workers are succeeding. "I don't feel totally sure he will keep his promises," said Sopheak. "Everything is completely up to him; the decision is his."
Additional reporting by Leng Len.