Labor leaders behind the biggest strikes in Cambodia's $5 billion garment industry knew last year they had a strong case for higher wages: they had already compared notes with activists in neighboring countries.
The result was a 25 percent increase in the minimum pay for an estimated 600,000 garment workers, to $100 a month, the biggest jump in around 15 years. Now, they're asking for more.
Negotiations over pay and working conditions have typically remained within national borders, but activists are now bringing more muscle to the table and putting more pressure on employers and governments by using shared experiences in nearby markets.
For global companies that have shifted production to Southeast Asia's low-cost manufacturing hub, this could mean less room for wage bargaining, a squeeze on profits and maybe even higher price tags on anything from shoes and clothing to cars and electronics appliances.
"I see a trend towards more and stronger collaboration among labor leaders that can take different shapes and forms, from exchanging information to partnerships," said Peter van Rooij, director of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Jakarta, noting ties would likely strengthen with next year's planned economic integration by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Thousands of workers in China, Indonesia and Cambodia have protested in recent months at local firms supplying U.S. sportswear company Nike Inc to press for better pay and conditions. Up to 4,000 workers at Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing Co, which makes clothes for Nike, went on strike in May last year demanding higher wages to keep pace with transport, rent and healthcare costs.
Across Asia's low-cost garment manufacturing industry in particular, there have been more strikes as unions use a shortage of skilled workers to press for better pay and improved safety - an issue highlighted by the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed at least 1,130 people.
Members of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) have reported a jump in the number of strikes to 147 last year from fewer than three dozen in 2011. Other international brands hit by protests at Cambodia-based suppliers last year include H&M Hennes and Mauritz AB, Wal-Mart Stores, Gap and Puma SE.
Following the Bangladesh disaster, local unions reached out to international labor representatives, said Annie Adviento, director of IndustriALL's Southeast Asia office, helping create the landmark Accord on Fire and Building Safety - a legally binding agreement signed by more than 150 apparel firms and the unions that requires factories to have independent safety inspections with the results made public.
IndustriALL, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries worldwide, said it arranges meetings two to three times a month to bring together labor activists from across Asia, something that was rarely done before last year.
"Issues are not being kept secret at the national level anymore. The capacity of the unions to share information has improved," said Adviento. "We're doing many exchanges this year as we found they are very effective and we intend to continue in 2015," she said, adding Cambodia and Bangladesh have been "high profile cases" for the global labor union.
"We communicate with each other and we give duties to this international union to lobby in asking for pay rises," said Chea Mony, president of the Phnom Penh-based Free Trade Union.