Garment factory owners failed to turn up for what was supposed to have been a tripartite meeting with the government and worker unions on Thursday to help break an impasse in negotiations to increase the minimum wage for workers, officials said.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) had organized the tripartite talks, the first since strikes by garment workers pushing for an increase in the minimum wage were violently suppressed in early January.
The meeting was primarily intended to debate and set a formula that can be used to adjust the minimum wage for garment workers amid criticism that the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC), the tripartite body tasked with fixing the wage, has failed to bring a resolution to the issue.
Sophorn Tun, Cambodia coordinator for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that while progress was made at the workshop, he was “saddened that the employers didn’t show up,” even though an invitation was officially made to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners, to participate in the talks.
The GMAC, which has boycotted such meetings in the past, had said that it would adhere to any decision made by the LAC on the minimum wage.
At the meeting Thursday, the Cambodian Labor Ministry, workers unions and nongovernmental organizations discussed “ideas from all stakeholders … [to] strengthen the process of defining the minimum wage,” Sophorn Tun said.
He said that the discussion was based on data gathered to better determine how to set worker wages.
Recommendations would be submitted to the LAC under the Ministry of Labor.
“We are relying on two factors: the social and economic factors [to define the minimum wage],” Sophorn Tun said.
“For the social factor, we are relying on the 1997 labor law, which states that the minimum wage must provide workers with an acceptable living standard, while for the economic factor we are studying what factories can afford to pay in terms of workers’ wages.”
Heng Suor, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said that even with the GMAC’s absence, Thursday’s meeting would “contribute to future talks on minimum wage,” adding that as soon as recommendations are submitted by the different stakeholders they will be forwarded on to the Labor Advisory Committee.
Ath Thon, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the country’s largest independent union, said that if a new minimum wage can be agreed upon based on the social and economic data the groups have been collecting, the workers “would have no further need to protest.”
The debate over salaries in Cambodia’s garment industry, a key export earner, was at the heart of strikes in the capital Phnom Penh in January which left five people and nearly 40 wounded when security forces opened fire on workers demanding higher minimum wages.
Unions and workers for Cambodia’s garment and footwear industries are demanding that the government raise minimum wages from U.S. $100 to U.S. $160 a month and improve working conditions, as well as the release of 21 people arrested in connection with the January crackdown.
Ath Thon said the release of the 21, who face charges of causing intentional violence and damaging property, and who will be brought to trial on Friday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, had become an “urgent matter” for fellow workers and rights activists.
“[Thursday’s workshop] is part of the long-term process, but right now we need to resolve the issue of the 21 people who are still in jail and the matter of the current minimum wage,” he said, adding that if the two issues are addressed, there will be “plenty of time for all sides to talk.”
Two others arrested alongside the 21 but released on bail will also be tried at Friday’s hearing.
If convicted they face up to up to five years’ imprisonment, as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Call for release
On Thursday, Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and local groups ADHOC and Licadho called on the Cambodian government to “drop all charges” against the 23 in a joint statement.
“Cambodia’s judiciary must end this baseless prosecution of garment workers and human rights defenders who have been severely beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and detained for several months for peacefully demonstrating to demand an adequate minimum wage,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.
The groups brought particular attention to Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), who the statement said is suffering from “serious kidney ailments” and is “in need of urgent medical treatment.”
Vorn Pov was denied bail on four occasions between Jan. 13 and April 4, it said.
“The prosecution of the 23 peaceful protestors is deeply troubling because it is just another example of Cambodia’s judiciary lack of independence,” LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge said.
“Foreign governments and donors must condemn [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s administration and urge that all charges against the 23 be dropped and that they be immediately released.”
The three groups also called on the Cambodian authorities to investigate the disappearance of Khem Sophath, a 16-year-old boy who they said has been missing since the Jan. 3 crackdown, when he was last seen lying on the ground with his chest covered in blood.
It was unclear whether he had been shot, the statement said, and more than three months later, his fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
“This trial only fuels a sense of injustice among Cambodia’s workers,” said ADHOC President Thun Saray.
“Twenty-three peaceful protestors face prison terms, [others] are dead, and a young boy is missing. But those responsible for the deadly violence remain at large and it’s highly unlikely they will ever be brought to justice.”
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.