Three and a half days of strikes that saw tens of thousands of workers walk out of garment factories across the country came to an end yesterday after the government called both sides to the negotiating table.
In a statement signed by Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng and released early yesterday, the ministry called for the strikes to end and announced a meeting between unions and employers on Sept 27 to discuss possible salary supplements for garment workers.
At about 12 pm yesterday, Cambodian Labor Confederation President Ath Thon announced that the strike would be temporarily suspended.
“We decided to suspend the strike…. His excellency the minister wrote a letter offering us a genuine meeting to discuss our request,” he said.
Mr Thon warned that the strikes could resume if nothing came of the negotiations.
“If we get a proper benefit, we will not strike again. If not, we have to do it again,” he said.
With the strikes over, CLC Secretary-General Kong Athit called for threats of legal action against strike leaders to cease.
“I propose to the government and especially to the prime minister to ask those…people who want to bring legal charges to bring the process to an end,” he said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the negotiations were not being offered in exchange for calling off the strikes.
“We are definitely not giving in to the pressure of the strikes. [The unions] are more afraid than us” to allow the strikes to continue,” he said.
Earlier this week, Mr Loo said GMAC was considering bringing criminal charges against those who were leading the strikes. He said yesterday the association would proceed with such actions “to the fullest extent” of the law.
The meeting is to be conducted as part of a policy group on industrial relations at the Government-Private Sector Forum, according to Mr Loo.
According to the letter from Mr Sam Heng, the minister of Social Affairs minister, the unions must submit their demands in writing before Sept 23.
The unions are calling for items such as a $5 attendance bonus, pay increments based on seniority and a 1000 riel per hour overtime meal allowance, he said.
The CLC initially called for negotiations on the minimum wage, due to rise to $61 next month. Those demands were changed to compensation in the form of benefits following a Sept 6 meeting with GMAC where employers made it clear they would not discuss the minimum wage.
Mr Athit of CLC said he felt confident unions could secure “positive results” from these negotiations because the government had taken charge.
“I think it would be more transparent…. The prime minister asked the Social Affairs Ministry to organize this negotiation,” he said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor project at the Community Legal Education Center, said the government’s intervention was important but the its effect was not yet known.
“As the government step in to facilitate, GMAC will follow but I’m not sure how much they will agree,” he said.
While the union had been successful in organizing so many workers to participate in the strikes, their next challenge would be getting them to go back to work, he added.
Mr Athit said that the reaction from most workers had been positive.
“Still, some are not happy…. They feel better but not totally confident,” he said.
“They want to see the money in their pay packet,” he added.
Some workers were back at work just a few hours after the strike ended.
Workers “went to work already,” said Oak Eang, a union representative at Darong Printing and Embroidery factory in Kandal province’s Ang Snoul district.
“The strike was short but if we continued we would face problems including being arrested by the police,” he said.
Others were waiting until today to return.
“Our workers didn’t go to work [yesterday] because they feel exhausted from the strike,” said Bun Van a representative at the New Orient factory in the capital’s Canadia Industrial Park.
Mr Tola of CLEC said it was not uncommon for union representatives to face threats or even dismissal upon returning to work after a strike. He urged employers not to hold any grudges once work resumed.
The strikes ended on a sour note when union representative Sok Sophea was detained following clashes in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, according to Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho.
Around 150 workers then gathered outside the district police station to demand his release, he said, adding that Mr Sophea was released after five hours in custody.
In a move apparently unrelated to the strikes, Free Trade Union President Chea Mony also released a statement yesterday. He called for the government to schedule a meeting to discuss his union’s demands—for salary supplements similar to those the CLC want.
“I have been working on this since July…. I didn’t know my letter came out at the same time” the strikes ended, he said.
Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical adviser at the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories program, said that the 10 days between the strike ending and negotiations taking place would allow both sides time to reflect.
“In a way, it is good that they have this cooling off period…. It is very positive that the government has required both parties to consolidate and submit their positions,” he said.
Mr Poutiainen said it would take a little time for production to return to normal.
“Each side needs to do some soul-searching,” he said. “They have to assess what the impact of the strike has been and if things could have been done differently.