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Cambodia PM woos garment workers with cash and pay rise vow

[PHNOM PENH] Cambodia's strongman premier handed out cash to hundreds of pregnant garment factory workers on Wednesday, launching a policy charm offensive on an industry that has often clashed with his government over working conditions and pay.

Mr Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, faces a key test at national polls next year with the main opposition party gaining in popularity amid mounting anger over corruption and inequality.

During a speech to more than 10,000 garment workers on Wednesday, he announced a raft of new benefits for employees, including a commitment to annual pay rises.

The monthly minimum wage for garment workers, currently US$153, "won't be lower than US$160" in 2018, he said, adding "the salary will be increased every year".

Employers will be ordered to pay for health insurance while all garment workers will receive free medical check-ups and treatment at state-run hospitals from January.

He also promised a guaranteed pension for the workers from 2019 and said they could travel on public buses for free for two years.

Political analyst Meas Ny said Mr Hun Sen saw the garment sector as a vote bank which was sympathetic to the opposition.

"It is a new strategy to capture their support back," he told AFP.

Mr Hun Sen, 65, has ruled Cambodia for 32 years, tolerating little dissent and skillfully wielding the courts against his opponents.

He portrays himself as the only man who can guarantee peace and stability in the war-ravaged nation but detractors say corruption and rights abuses have become endemic under his rule.

At the end of his speech, Hun Sen donated US$5 to each worker attending the gathering and personally handed an envelope of cash to hundreds of pregnant women.

More than 740,000 workers provide the backbone of Cambodia's US$7 billion textile industry, which supplies brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.

They have been at the forefront of labour protests or strikes for higher wages and have faced several crackdowns by Cambodian authorities.

Garment workers joined the opposition party's mass public rallies both before and after the disputed election in 2013.

Last week, Cambodia closed a prominent American NGO and ordered its foreign staff to leave the country, the latest salvo by the government against perceived critics.