Cambodian authorities have held two rounds of talks with garment factory owners and unions under a new mechanism to help break a deadlock over increasing the workers' monthly minimum wage but to no avail.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said however that he expected the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the factories, and the unions to find common ground when negotiations resume Monday.
“We will do our best to get closer to a figure [that will satisfy] all parties,” he said after the talks held under the auspices of a new working group adjourned on Thursday.
The garment workers’ unions have mostly agreed to accept a new minimum monthly wage of U.S. $150 effective next year—U.S. $27 less than they originally wanted, but U.S. $50 more than the current sum.
But the GMAC has said it can only raise the monthly minimum wage to U.S. $110 and provide an attendance bonus of U.S. $10 and U.S. $7 for transportation and housing.
The working group will resume discussions on Monday and continue talks “until we get a compromise,” Ith Sam Heng said.
But the unions warned that they may return to street protests if their demands are not met.
“Our stand is still U.S. $150,” said Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW). “[But] if the GMAC offers U.S. $120 or U.S. $115 or U.S. $125, our unions will declare our final stand.”
Pav Sina said if the Labor Ministry failed to break the impasse, its decision to set up the new working group in a bid to bring about a quick resolution to the wage dispute “is meaningless.”
In an effort to placate the unions, Ith Sam Heng said Thursday he would negotiate with relevant parties to drop all criminal charges against unionists accused of stoking violent clashes between protesting workers and security forces at the end of last year and early this year.
Ith Sam Heng met with lawmakers on Tuesday to announce the formation of the new 27-member working group aimed at speeding up stalled negotiations.
The Labor Advisory Committee (LAC), an organization of employers, the government, and unions, will still have the final say on the garment industry’s minimum wage. The working group, which will consist of nine representatives each from the three parties who are directly involved in the apparel industry, will help set the pace for the LAC talks, reports said.
The members will keep negotiating until they come up with a rational number, Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said, according to The Phnom Penh Post.
The LAC was supposed to decide on the new minimum wage this month, but Ith Sam Heng postponed the meeting to an unspecified date in November, the report said.
A recent study conducted by a task force set up by a government ministry found that the workers needed a minimum livable wage of U.S. $157-U.S. $177 a month to cover their basic needs.
Seang Sambath, president of the Worker Friendship Union Federation (WFUF), is backing the CUMW.
“If the meeting produces fruitless results or the demand for a decent wage is not met, we will continue to strike,” he said.
The decision to create the working group comes amid ongoing tensions between garment factory workers and the government.
Last Sunday, about 1,000 garment workers from six unions, including the CUMW, gathered in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to back their minimum wage demands.
Despite a warning not to leave the area, they peacefully marched to parliament and American and European Union embassies to submit petitions, as military and riot police stood by, rights group Licadho said.
Cambodian workers had made increased wages a central demand of strikes they launched last year that led to a deadly security crackdown in January.
Reported by Sok Ry Sum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.