The Cambodian government decided Tuesday to increase the minimum wage of Cambodia’s garment and footwear workers to a level much lower than that demanded by trade unions, triggering a wave of protests and calls for strikes supported by the main opposition party.
Key workers unions had proposed to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), an employers’ organization, that the wage be nearly doubled to U.S. $160 per month in 2014 but the Labor Advisory Council — which consists of government, union and factory representatives — decided that it be raised from the current U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 for full-time workers and U.S. $90 for temporary workers.
The Ministry of Labor, in announcing the council's decision, outlined a plan calling for an annual rise in the minimum wage that would enable full-time workers to fetch U.S. $160 and temporary workers to get U.S. $155 by 2018.
But the workers representatives rejected the plan, saying they would not budge from their proposal for an immediate hike to U.S $160 dollars.
“The decision shows the efforts by the government and relevant stakeholders [to better the] benefits for the workers and factories to boost development in the country,” a ministry statement said.
“In this spirit, the Ministry of Labor urges workers and employers to remain calm, continue their operations, avoid falling into the political traps of opportunists [and the ministry] hopes that the workers and employers will implement the Labor Advisory Council's decision.”
But Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), appealed to the workers to go on strike to pressure the government to change its decision, saying the workers’ demands were in line with high prices of goods and food.
“We are demanding [a much higher minimum wage] for the workers," he said. "Please, workers, join the strike so that all factories will close their doors. This is to pressure the government to raise the workers wages to U.S. $160 dollars,” he said.
About 3,000 workers from Medtecs Cambodia Co Ltd in Kampong Cham held protests against the council decision, setting road blocks in the province, while about 5,000 workers in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone in Svay Rieng province also demonstrated to back their call for a much higher minimum wage.
At least 500 workers from the Pak Sun Knitting Factory surrounded the Ministry of Labor building to also protest the council decision.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is holding daily protests to back its demand for a re-election following disputed July 28 polls, has backed the unions in their demands for an immediately doubling of the minimum wage and called for a nationwide strike.
“I urge all workers across the country that we share the same stand, we must support each other, we must conduct a nationwide strike we would not return to work if we don’t have the 160 dollars monthly wage soon," CNRP President Sam Rainsy said.
"Please workers you must go on strike to demand higher wages," he said late Monday, when speculations grew that the government would not bow to the union's demand
The CNRP in a statement Tuesday called on the Labor Advisory Council to immediately raise the monthly minimum wage to U.S$160, saying the decision to raise the wage incrementally over the next five years is "unacceptable."
"The CNRP believes that if the minimum wage is not raised to U.S $160 immediately, rising food prices and living expenses will make it impossible for garment workers to address their basic needs, and strikes that have plagued the garment sector lately will continue," the party said.
According to the International Labor Organization, a minimum wage must “cover the minimum needs of the worker and his or her family, in the light of national economic and social conditions,” the CNRP said.
Meanwhile, a local rights group has criticized the GMAC, which represents more than 400 garment and footwear factories in the country, for reportedly saying that the government appeared to be too patient in dealing with unions.
A local newspaper had reported that it had obtained a letter sent by GMAC to the Minister of Labor urging the government to strictly enforce a zero-tolerance policy towards “illegal” strikes, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said in a statement.
"CCHR is concerned that such statements calling for zero-tolerance on illegal strikes will only exacerbate problems within the garment sector," the statement said.
"Regardless of the legality of the strike, a zero-tolerance policy will only ignore the root causes of the labor dispute and most likely lead to further violent crackdowns against workers and union members."
"By making such statements, GMAC is only adding fuel to the fire," CCHR Coordinator of the Business and Human Rights Project Duch Piseth said.
"Instead we call on GMAC to work together with workers and unions to settle disputes peacefully."
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.