Cambodia’s newly established government panel to investigate minimum wage reform held its first meeting Thursday to lay out a strategy for addressing the hot-button issue, as union leaders announced plans to protest to back their demand for monthly salary increases for footwear and garment workers.
Deputy Prime Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon chaired the closed door meeting to define the goals of the committee, established last month to determine the government’s capacity to introduce minimum wage increases for civil servants and factory workers.
The panel will report its findings to Cambodia’s Labor Advisory Committee under the Ministry of Labor, committee secretary general Heng Sour said.
“Our meeting was held to provide technical research to the Labor Advisory Committee to help them continue their discussions,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
The Labor Advisory Committee has been working to promote dialogue on the minimum wage issue between the worker unions, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC)—an employers’ organization—and government representatives.
“The purpose of the meeting was to define our strategies and goals before we can achieve any resolution,” Heng Sour said.
“We want an increase of employment and equity benefits for the workers just as much as they do.”
Unions and workers for Cambodia’s garment and footwear industries have been demanding that the government raise minimum wages to U.S. $160 a month and improve working conditions, as well as the release of 23 people arrested in connection with labor protests.
The 23 were arrested after a Jan. 3 shootout by security forces during a strike by garment workers demanding higher minimum wages left five people dead and wounded several others.
The government clampdown, followed by a ban on any demonstrations in the capital Phnom Penh, had forced an end to the strikes and the return to factories by thousands of protesting workers.
Cambodia’s garment industry had ground to a virtual standstill following the strikes which led manufacturers to shutter the hundreds of factories in the country as they were unable able to meet production schedules.
Ahead of the new year, officials had announced that the minimum wage would be increased from U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 from April, turning down a request by unions that it be doubled immediately. Officials later raised the rate to U.S. $100 per month beginning in February.
Plan to march
Also on Thursday, 11 prominent unions announced plans to hold a march on Feb. 10 in defiance of the ban on demonstrations and to deliver petitions demanding the increase in wages and the release of the 23 detainees.
Rong Chhun, the President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told RFA that the decision to march was made during a meeting between the unions and that demonstrators would present a list of seven points that they would like the government to address, though he did not provide details of the demands.
Rong Chhun said that the unions would also call on the government to lift its ban on public gatherings.
Union leaders said earlier this week that they are preparing documents to file compensation claims with the relevant authorities over the deaths, injuries, sackings, and detention of workers following the earlier strikes.
They will also demand that the factories reinstate 100 union representatives who were terminated due to their participation in recent protests.
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 RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.