Activists Blame Short Contracts for Strikes

Labor activists at the bi-annual Buyers Forum in Phnom Penh on Thursday said that short-term contracts in Cambodia’s garment industry were fueling the high number of strikes affecting the industry.

“Most of [the disputes] are over dismissals or dismissals of union leaders and the reason why they’re [annoyed] is because they are kept on fixed duration contracts, which are maintained against the Labor Law,” said Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for Inter­national Labor Solidarity, who attended the forum, which brings together international clothing brands, unions and manufacturers to discuss issues facing the region’s garment sector.

“We’ve been talking about this for 10 years; it’s not rocket science,” he added.

Unions say short-term contracts leave workers more vulnerable in the job market as employers can choose not to renew their contract at any time.

“If [the brands] are serious about amending [this problem], they can do it in a unified gesture and it’s a win-win situation not just for the brands but for the industry because it would be more compliant and I strongly think we will see a reduction in strikes,” Mr. Welsh said.

But, Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), disagreed that short-term contracts were the reason for strike action in the industry and said that unions should be more willing to negotiate with employers through legal channels rather than holding strikes.

“It’s more a question of getting the unions to negotiate rather than to strike,” he said.

He added that while the Buyers Forum seem to tackle these same issues each year with no resolution in sight, the unions were starting to understand that it was the brands—not the manufacturers—who have the upper hand in dealing with wage issues.

“It is an encouraging sign to hear the unions at least beginning to understand that really the mon­ey is in the pocket of the buyers and not the factories,” he said.

Brand representatives at the forum Thursday expressed concern over strike action in the sector, but offered little sign of a solution.

“Cambodia has specific risks for sure and one of the main reasons to get together…is to try and find better ways to tackle these issues,” said Jonah Wigerhall, sustainability project leader for Swedish clothing brand H&M.

“The questions on [fixed duration contracts versus unlimited duration contracts] is a very important question.”

According to the GMAC, there have been 83 factory strikes during the first eight months of 2013.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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