Work and custom at Phnom Penh’s Caltex petrol stations ground to a halt Monday as hundreds of employees at all 17 of the petrol giant’s stations in the capital began striking for a higher monthly wage.
The strikes, led by the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), will continue until workers see their monthly wage rise from $110 to $160, unionists and employees said Monday.
Carrying signs saying “we need $160 a month” and politely turning down customers, workers in Caltex uniforms gathered at stations to call for a pay rise and other benefits.
Unlike recent garment worker strikes, which have seen a large-scale and sometimes violent police presence, few officers were stationed near the strikers Monday, and protests were permitted to go ahead unimpeded.
According to CFSWF president Sar Mora, Phnom Penh City Hall said it would help negotiate between the workers and company to settle the dispute.
“The city said that Caltex staff can hold their strike in a peaceful way at their workplace, but they have to be careful since locations can easily catch fire. They said they will take this issue to discuss with the employer,” he said.
The union may also seek intervention from the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Mora added, due to Caltex’s U.S. provenance as the brand name for petrol giant Chevron.
Station attendants, drivers, and convenience store employees converged Monday to call for an increase to a salary they say is impossible to live on.
“They cannot support their family with $110 since inflation keeps rising,” said CFSWF deputy president Ou Tepphalin.
Among other demands is an annual bonus equal to a month’s pay.
In April, the company raised the wage from $90 a month to $110, but workers insist it is insufficient.
Yuos Piseth, 45, a station attendant who has been employed by Caltex for 17 years, said the company was failing to keep salaries in line with living costs.
“Our living condition keeps getting worse and worse since market prices keep rising,” he said.
The figure of $160 is identical to what garment workers at factories across Cambodia have been unsuccessfully pushing for since December. But station employees said Monday they were hopeful that the highly coordinated protest would succeed where others had failed.
“This will make it difficult for the company—-if the station is not running, they will lose their profits,” said Lok Bonavortey, 20, a convenience store staffer. “Therefore, they will need to find a solution for us as soon as possible.”
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the strikes would be permitted to continue as long as workers remained stationed at their place of work and did not block roads or take other illegal action.
Chanlek Than, a spokeswoman for Chevron, said the company was taken aback by the strike.
“We are disappointed that our unionized service station colleagues have taken the drastic action to stop work instead of following legal processes to resolve the matter that would have enabled us to continue the supply of fuel products and minimize inconvenience to the public,” she wrote in an email.
Ms. Than said the company is working with authorities and union leaders to get their stations operating again.
The seven-year-old CFSWF has seen a number of successful industrial actions on behalf of workers in the service industry, including beer promoters and entertainment workers.
Just days ago, Cambodia’s largest brewer, Cambrew Ltd., agreed to lift the monthly salary of workers by $30 to $150. Hundreds of workers at the company’s Angkor beer brewery in Sihanoukville spent just two days taking part in a strike protest led by the CFSWF before their demands were met.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said the union had an unusually successful track record.
“The Service Workers Union supported the CNRP leading up to the national election with plans to raise minimum wages across the nation,” he said. “But when they were disappointed by the election result, they started to target sector by sector and company by company to get improvements for workers.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)