A Change of Guard

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Wednesday 27 February 2013

Wide Gap Hampers Cambodian Wage Talks

Minister of Labor Vong Sauth (L) and Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng (R) attend minimum wage talks, Feb. 26, 2013.
A higher minimum salary for Cambodia’s garment and footwear worker is still not within sight after talks broke down Tuesday between unions representing the workers and their employers, officials said.

The garment and footwear workers unions proposed to nearly double the current minimum monthly wage of U.S. $61 to U.S. $120, but the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) offered to increase it only to U.S. $72.

The large divide between the proposals by unions and the employers threaten to scuttle negotiations held by the Labor Advisory Council—which is comprised of government officials, union representatives, and employers.

Cambodian Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng told reporters after the meeting that the government would continue to guide talks between the two sides, which are due to meet again on Wednesday.

“We are creating a working group consisting of the unions, employers, and government officials to coordinate and reach a deal. I hope that within a few days we will find a solution,” he said.

“We’ve had some progress, even if it’s only to foster talks between the employers and the unions. In the past, we couldn’t even get the two sides to meet, but now there is no such problem.”

Ith Sam Heng said that the GMAC proposal was a good start to negotiations and that the government hoped to increase the living standards of the workers within the means of the employers.

There are currently 700,000 workers employed at shoe and garment factories across the country, he said.

Union officials painted a less rosy picture of how wage negotiations proceeded Tuesday and pledged to stand by their proposal.

Cambodia Confederation of Unions President Rong Chhun said the unions had agreed to work together to ensure that the workers they represent are able to make ends meet for themselves and their families.

“Originally, I asked for U.S. $150, but the majority asked for U.S. $120, so I have agreed. We will continue to fight for our demands,” Rong Chhun said.

“U.S. $120 a month is not enough for the workers, but at least it is better than now,” he said.

Free Trade Union President Chea Mony warned that nationwide work stoppages could take place if an agreement was not reached in their favor.
“If our demands are not met, there will be strikes,” he said.

Union representatives gather to discuss minimum wage for workers, Feb. 26, 2013. Credit: RFA
Low wages

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.

In July last year, government, union, and worker leaders agreed to subsidize workers' salaries by an extra U.S. $7 for housing costs per month and to give regular workers a U.S. $10 bonus.

But union leaders, who charge that low salaries are contributing to widespread worker malnutrition because they do not have enough money to spend on food, said the wage increase was still insufficient.

A report last month by the Cambodia Daily said that Cambodia’s Arbitration Council had heard around 230 collective labor disputes in the garment and footwear industry involving approximately 98,000 workers in 2012, a 38 percent increase from 2011, which saw 161 cases handled.

The council said it was the highest number of cases since it had been established in 2003, adding that 90 percent of the cases involved the garment and footwear industries.

More than 100,000 garment workers participated in at least one strike in 2012, which the report said was a “major spike” compared to 2011, without providing further details.

According to Better Factories Cambodia, during its 2011 reporting period garment factories experienced 27 strikes involving 36,053 workers, a doubling of the number of strikes and the number of workers involved as compared to their last reporting period.

Reported by Vann Vicha and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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