Dues collection in Cambodia’s most independent trade union has fallen sharply since the monthly minimum wage was increased in July from $40 to $45, but workers disagree with the union leader about the reasons.
Chea Vichea, leader of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, says garment workers have become complacent and are too quick to forget that union solidarity won the minimum wage increase with a one-week strike in June.
He said workers have told him they don’t see why they should keep paying the option of 1,000 riel or 500 riel per month in dues when they’ve already gotten the wage raise. The workers also complain that the union protects workers who don’t pay, as well as the ones who do, he said.
The 15,000 members should be contributing between $1,923 and $3,846 per month, but only about 10 percent of members are paying, Chea Vichea said.
Workers, however, say they are not paying dues because union representatives don’t collect them.
Some said union activists who used to collect dues in their factories had been fired or bought off by factory managers.
At the Great Dragon Shoes factory, workers Pao Sopheap and Norng Srey Neang said the union representative who used to collect their dues got fired, and nobody is collecting them now.
About 250 workers at Great Dragon went on strike last week. Worker Mam Sovann said he will volunteer to collect the dues from workers if the union helps them negotiate with management. He said he joined the union after the strike began last Wednesday.
The collection problem isn’t limited to the Free Trade Union. Ros Sok, president of the Cambodia Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said his 20,000-member union has noticed a similar fall-off in dues collection, but the group has decided to focus on signing up new members, for now.
“We will worry about educating them later’’ as to the importance of paying dues, Ros Sok said.
Som Aun, president of the Cambodia Union Labor Federation, said some workers in his union think the dues are not worth it. “They do not understand that the workers’ interests are protected by the union,” he said.
But Chuon Mom Thol, president of the government-leaning Cambodian Union Federation, says dues are coming in at the same rate as always.
Thirty to 35 percent of his 40,000 members consistently pay 1,000 riel per month, he said. Sixty percent of that is returned to the 95 local factory unions that make up the federation, Chuon Mom Thol said.
Chea Vichea acknowledged the Free Trade Union has fewer people to collect dues now. About 60 union leaders and activists—a number of whom were responsible for collecting dues—were fired after the strike in June.
Chea Vichea said his union needs the dues to rent union headquarters, pay telephone fees and fund training sessions for union leaders, and to cover costs related to demonstrations, such as banners and loudspeakers. He also said the July salary increase, while welcome, will not go far as living costs continue to increase.
Phoung Montry, a Free Trade Union official in charge of information and issuing membership cards, agrees with the workers that the union is largely responsible for the dues falloff.
He says union activists have grown less diligent about collecting dues in part because none of them receive any salary. Of the more than 30 members of the union’s steering committee, only Chea Vichea is now working at the union full time, Phuong Montry said. The others have had to find other jobs and don’t come to help the union very often because “ no one can work without eating.”
Chea Vichea said the Free Trade Union pays no salaries, although some union activists get between $20 and $30 per month for travel expenses. That, apparently, has led to some hard feelings among union activists. Phoung Montry said some activists who did not receive reimbursement became envious of others who did.
Chea Vichea said his union’s money problems began in June, the same month the union mobilized thousands of workers in a week-long strike involving up to 60 factories.
Free Trade Union officials agreed to suspend dues collection for June and July, knowing that manufacturers were penalizing the workers their $5 per month bonus due to the work disruption.
In August, the Free Trade Union instructed activists who collected the dues to use the money to buy mobile telephones for themselves to improve communications, noting that the inability of union leaders to contact each other caused major difficulties during the strike.
But when regular dues collection was supposed to resume in September, compliance had fallen to 10 percent, Chea Vichea said.
Chea Vichea said labor union organizers have many other goals for their members, including obtaining pensions, health coverage, a reduced work week, more holidays and child care.
Unions also want the government to enforce the labor law, establish a labor court, and set up regulations governing payments to employees who are hurt or killed on the job.
But without the financial support of the members, Chea said, it will not happen.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Jody McPhillips)