Cambodian Garment Workers in New Campaign For Wage Increase

cambodia-strike-dec-2013.jpg Workers demonstrate for higher minimum wages in front of the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh on Dec. 30, 2013.

Garment workers in 300 factories across Cambodia are to launch a new campaign Wednesday to increase their monthly minimum wage to U.S. $177 from U.S. $100, union officials said.

A previous demand for a wage hike to U.S. $160 had been rejected by employers, who raised salaries to U.S. $100 from U.S. $80 this year.

On Wednesday, representatives from unions and nongovernmental organizations will join workers in demonstrations outside factories during lunch break to highlight their demands for the wage increase.  

They will submit petitions to factory managers and the Cambodian government on the issue.

“All union representatives have agreed that we must demand the [monthly minimum wage] be raised because the situation has changed [from the previous demand of U.S. $160] due to the economy and inflation,” Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

But he added that the talks with the factory management would be flexible.

The move comes ahead of a meeting of the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC), an organization of employers, the government, and unions, early next month for discussions on a new minimum wage that will take effect in January 2015, reports say.

Garment workers’ unions vowed to restart protests if the country’s Garment Manufacturing Association (GMA), which represents the factories on the LAC, raised the wage to only U.S. $115 next year, as the organization proposed doing at a meeting last month, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

Although at the time unions sought an increase U.S. $177, the GMA offered U.S. $115 based on the Cambodian government’s plan for a gradual rise in the wage to reach U.S. $160 by 2018, the report said.

Recent study

Tola Moeun, head of the Labor Program at the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), urged the government to allow the unions to engage with the factories and product buyers to define a new minimum wage.

He said a recent study conducted by a task force set up by a government ministry found that the minimum livable wage to cover a worker’s basic needs is between U.S. $157- $177.

“Workers are demanding U.S. $177 because of the study,” he told RFA. “This is appropriate for the workers. The buyers and factories can increase their contribution a bit, then the workers’ wages can be raised.”

But Heng Sour, the spokesman for the Labor Ministry, warned that excessive wage demands could prompt investors to look for other markets, resulting in a loss of jobs in Cambodian factories.

He also pointed out that the new wage demand of U.S. $177 wasn’t in line with what unionists agreed to during the last round of talks with the LAC on the issue.

Heng Sour said during the discussions, union representatives proposed a lower amount, although he declined to disclose it.

“The amount we agreed to was lower,” he said. “Foreign investors and buyers might be concerned about the [current] demand because it is too high. We must raise the minimum wage step by step…[and] we must take into consideration social and economic impacts.”

Worldwide support

The campaign to seek a higher minimum wage is being supported by foreign trade unions which will hold demonstrations in more than 40 cities on Wednesday, according to a statement issued by the CLEC.

They will target retail stores, offices, and workplaces of multinational apparel sellers, including H&M, Gap, Adidas, Puma, Zara, Levis, and C&A, which source from Cambodian garment factories.

“For too long, international brands have reaped the benefits of poverty wages while claiming a commitment to living wages in their supply chains,” the statement said. “It is time for concrete action from international clothing giants and their suppliers.”

In Sydney, Australia, for instance, a demonstration will be held outside a shopping center in the city’s central shopping district to coincide with the demonstrations in Cambodia, the Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly reported.

Australian trade unionists will also stage a protest outside the Cambodian embassy in Canberra, the report said.

Calls for an increase

Garment and footwear workers in Cambodia typically work long hours for little pay producing apparel for major western clothing retailers, unions say.

Earlier this month, Cambodian authorities pursued charges against six labor activists accused of encouraging violent clashes between protesting workers and security forces on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Free Trade Union President Chea Mony, who was among the six, said the charges were “purely politically motivated” and meant to intimidate union members who called for a wage increase.

Strikes by garment workers beginning late last year led to a deadly security crackdown in January and a ban on demonstrations, lifted only in July.

The clothing industry accounts for 52 percent of Cambodia’s total exports, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report last month.

Although it is one of the top 20 apparel producers in the world, Cambodia has among the lowest minimum monthly wages in the industry, the report said.

Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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