Four trade unions on Tuesday demanded that Cambodia’s garment and footwear manufacturers raise the minimum wage of their workers and provide them with additional benefits, threatening a nationwide strike and demonstrations if they do not comply.
In a joint letter to the Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), an employers’ organization, the unions called for nearly double the U.S. $80 per month minimum wage announced by the government in March, and which took effect two months later.
“We are demanding an increase in the minimum wage to U.S. $154 [per month], as well as six additional workers’ benefits,” said the letter, which was signed by the unions, including the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC).
The government has indicated that it would allow an increase in the minimum wage, but didn’t say by how much.
“Even though we cannot say how much the wage would be raised, the government policy is that they will raise the wage in January 2014,” the Cambodia Daily quoted Prak Chanthoeun, director-general of the Labor Ministry’s labor conflict committee, as saying.
Among the benefits demanded in the union joint missive on Tuesday were an additional U.S. $3 per day for food, that factories maintain a sovereignty fund in the national bank for workers in case of unexpected closures, and an end to short term contracts.
The letter also called for an end to powerful government officials backing factories and for authorities to prosecute anyone connected to a factory who threatens or harms workers.
The unions, who represent thousands of workers across Cambodia, said that they “will hold a nationwide strike in early December if no solution is reached.”
A government advisory committee established by Cambodia’s ministry of labor has scheduled tripartite talks on the minimum wage issue between the worker unions, GMAC and government representatives for Wednesday.
NIFTUC President Mom Nhim told RFA’s Khmer Service that the workers are preparing for the meeting as a way to “coordinate efforts on the minimum wage,” but said the unions would prefer to meet one on one with GMAC as a way to get to the heart of the issue.
“We want to have bilateral talks first and the talks must be honest,” she said.
But Mom Nhim said that if a solution could not be found that was amenable to the unions, workers would begin mass protests.
“For the first stage [in case talks are not productive], we will hold strikes in every factory, but in the case that there is still no resolution we will hold demonstrations,” she said.
“[The workers] don’t want to have to use these tactics to demand [an increase of] the minimum wage.”
Senior GMAC official Cheath Khemara said his organization would discuss the possibility of raising minimum wages with factory owners and called on the unions to refrain from using strikes or demonstrations to “threaten the factories.”
“We will hold a discussion in response to the demands, but we don’t want to see any threats of strikes or demonstrations attached to those demands,” he said.
“We want the demands to be made through statements or requests. We don’t want to see anything affect [factory] production.”
Following a tripartite meeting between the government, unions, and GMAC in March, workers’ minimum wages earnings were raised from U.S. $61 to U.S. $73, plus an additional U.S. $5 as a form of health benefit. GMAC later agreed to add an additional U.S. $2 per month following a request by Prime Minister Hun Sen, bringing the total to U.S. $80.
The increase of U.S. $19 per month in minimum wage represented only a U.S. $8 bump up from the GMAC’s position of U.S. $72 when negotiations opened at the end of February.
The unions had originally demanded U.S. $120, but dropped down to U.S. $100 after one day of talks.
In July, two weeks before national elections, Cambodia’s umbrella Free Trade Union (FTU) threw its weight behind the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), citing the party's commitment to raising the minimum wage for factory workers.
The CNRP had proposed a minimum monthly wage of U.S. $150 for garment workers and U.S. $250 for civil servants. There is no minimum salary as such for civil servants, who are largely exempt from the country’s labor laws.
In September, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was officially declared the winner of the July 28 polls, despite widespread allegations of election irregularities, and the CNRP’s plans for wage increases never came to fruition.
Cambodia’s 300,000 textile workers often work long shifts for little pay in the garment factories, trade unions complain. The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner.
Reported by Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.