Adidas, Disney Call for Calm After Strikes

With negotiations between unions and garment factories set to begin today following recent mass strikes, international companies involved in Cambodia’s garment industry have expressed “concern” at how the dispute has been handled.

“It is now with great concern that we watch the direction the process is taking,” representatives of the clothing brands Adidas, Gap, Levi Strauss, H&M and the Walt Disney Company said in a letter on Friday.

The letter—addressed to Cam­bodian Labor Confederation Pre­sident Ath Thon, Cambodian Na­tional Confederation President Morm Nhim, Garment Manu­facturers Association in Cambodia Secretary-General Ken Loo and the ministers of commerce, social af­fairs and labor—called on all sides to find a “long-term” solution.

“We urge all parties to…refrain from any inflammatory action and counterproductive rhetoric,” it said.

After the wage strikes earlier this month, unions and rights groups have accused employers of seeking retribution through the courts by filing civil lawsuits against union representatives.

The walkouts were for the most part peaceful and without incident, though some employers accused union representatives of incitement and blockading working factories.

Union leaders and GMAC yesterday declined to speculate as to whether the letter laid blame either with employers or trade unionists.

“Having such a neutral letter signifies that the buyers know what is actually happening…. They are aware of the situation from the perspectives of both the unions and the employers,” said GMAC’s Mr Loo.

CLC Secretary-General Kong Athit applauded the buyers for getting involved, but urged them to take a more direct role.

“They have to do something more than this letter…in terms of respecting their own code of conduct and reputation,” he said. But he said it was important to remember that a multinational company would not necessarily be focused on the issue of workers’ rights.

“Of course the buyers are also employers. We have to accept that,” he said.

Mr Athit also stressed that the negotiation process would take time, saying he did not expect a deal to be done today.

Unions made five demands last week, including a $93 living wage, increasing an existing monthly seniority bonus to $2 per year of employment; changing the overtime meal allowance to 1,000 riel, or about $0.25, per hour; doubling an existing $5 bonus for perfect attendance and adding a new $10 transport and health care bonus.

Mr Athit said the union wanted to discuss the wage issue but would continue with the negotiations even if it were not on the table. Mr Loo said employers had already indicated a willingness to negotiate on benefits but only after the new minimum wage is introduced.

“We don’t even know what the impact of the minimum wage will be yet,” he said.

A new minimum wage of $61 is due to come into effect on Friday, representing a $5 rise that unions decried as too little and that was the catalyst for this month’s strikes.

Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical officer at the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories program, said he would consider the meeting a success if the parties could achieve “some kind of timetable and process for negotiations to continue.”

He said he believed the success of the strikes would benefit the unions. “They do come with a proven ability to organize…. That gives them a bit of a valuable bargaining chip,” he said.

The CLC’s Mr Athit said he was “not totally” confident of achieving a successful deal through these negotiations but added that it was the only forum available.

“If the negotiation is just a way to calm down the strike…the next campaign would be very big and [completely] legal,” he said.

Union leaders would not immediately consider restarting the strikes but would take action by appealing to buyers and raising international awareness, he said.

As both sides prepared for today’s negotiations, around 3,500 workers in three Kandal province factories–who had been on strike last week to protest the suspension of their union representatives–claimed yesterday that they were not being allowed to go back to work.

Loeut Sophanith, a worker at Goldfame Enterprises (Int’l) Knitting factory in Sa’ang district, said the strike was over but that on Friday around 3,000 of her colleagues were prevented from returning to the factory.

“The factory said they didn’t fire these workers but they…didn’t have a time card for them to check,” she said, adding this meant they could not get paid.

Sam Yu, a manager at Goldfame, yesterday denied that any workers had been prevented from returning. He said “nearly 100 percent” of workers were back in the factory but that many were still refusing to work.

According to workers, around 200 employees from the River Rich Textile factory and 300 from Winner Knitting factory, both in the same district, have also been denied permission to return.

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