After a heated debate, the Labor Advisory Committee on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to raise local garment workers’ wages by only $5, bringing the monthly minimum wage to $45.
The decision comes nearly a month after five days of strikes by workers demanding more pay.
“This is a new landmark and success we made through this forum,” said Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, whose counter-proposal of $45 broke a deadlocked debate. “The raise is appropriate enough that we could accept for workers.”
The hike, the first one since the $40 minimum wage was set in 1997, will be effective in August.
“We want the minimum wage much higher, but manufacturers simply can’t raise any more than this,” Ith Sam Heng said, citing that a large hike could jeopardize country’s economic growth.
Neither union leaders nor manufacturers, however, were fully satisfied with the result, though the majority voted in favor of the minister’s proposal.
“Thank you very much for killing us,” Van Sou Ieng, president of the Cambodia Garment Manufacturers Association, joked to Ith Sam Heng after the five-hour meeting.
He argued in the meeting that any raise of the minimum wage would negatively affect Cambodia’s single largest industry and many companies would shut their doors.
But workers claimed that the raise is too small to call it a victory.
“I’m not happy with the results,” said Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade of Union of the workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, who insistently demanded a $70 minimum wage, or at least an increase to $50, and voted against the minister’s proposal. “It wouldn’t help the workers at all…The $5 raise wouldn’t improve their poor living conditions, ” he said.
The advisory committee, consisting of government officials, union leaders and manufacturing representatives, met Thursday for the second time to discuss on a hike of the minimum wage and other financial incentives for garment workers.
The topic was raised by the Free Trade Union during the last committee meeting in mid-June, after large scale garment worker demonstrations and strikes were held to protest what workers claim is a too-low wage and an overly-long work week.
In the last committee meeting, the debate stalled and the committee decided to defer action until all five of the country’s major labor organizations could agree upon what they wanted.
By Thursday the union group had proposed $60 for the minimum wage and demanded other five financial incentives, including $10 monthly bonuses and extra annual bonuses worth one month’s salary for employees who work a full year without incident. Instead, the committee voted for $5 monthly productivity bonuses and 18 paid holidays.
“We think the current wage is too low for workers to make a living,” said Choun Mum Thal, president of the Cambodia Union Federation, made up of 38,000 workers.
Chea Vichea argued that $85 is needed for a decent life for workers, who he said can spend at least $25 each for food and medical expenses, and another $10 each for transportation and rent.
However, the employers’ group insisted that any raise would dissuade foreign investors from coming to Cambodia, and Cambodian workers themselves would ultimately suffer from losing their jobs.
During the negotiations, several government and industry representatives claimed that recent violent demonstrations presented a bad image of Cambodia to the world and criticized union leaders for forcing unwilling workers to join the demonstration.
Morm Naim, president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions of Kampuchea, defended the unions’ decision to strike.
“We organize demonstrations only to seek justice and ask the factory owners to improve working conditions and raise salary.”