Government officials and union representatives met behind closed doors Thursday to start hashing out a better way to set the minimum wage for the country’s all-important but troubled garment sector at a workshop brokered by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
But what was supposed to be a start of frank, three-party discussions between the government, unions and factory owners was more of a bilateral affair with scant participation from manufacturers.
Amid the many government officials and union members in the room was only one representative from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the bulk of the 500-plus exporting garment factories in the country. An advisor to the Ministry of Labor said their light presence threatened to scupper the reform efforts.
“Employers did not come to attend the workshop because they are tired of the [union] protests, even though they just raised the minimum wage,” said Chuon Momthol, deputy chairman of the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC), the tripartite body tasked with setting the minimum wage.
“We are disappointed with the absence of the employers and I think the discussion today cannot be used because this is a tripartite consultation,” said Mr. Momthol, who also advises the Labor Ministry and heads a pro-government union.
“One party is missing, so the discussion cannot be used to lead to official results,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said he was pleased with the union representation at the workshop but believed the dearth of factory representatives exposed their lack of interest in reforming the wage-setting system.
“The attendance is good, but the problem is that the employers [do] not come,” said Mr. Thorn, who also worried that a lack of interest from GMAC could hurt the process.
A government-backed study last year found that garment workers need at least $155 a month to earn a living wage. But the LAC settled on $95, and the Labor Ministry pushed the minimum wage up to $100 a few days later amid crippling strikes led by Mr. Thorn and other unions demanding nothing short of $160.
The unions behind the strikes said the new wage decision was further proof that the LAC was in need of reform, as it is stacked with too many pro-government voices. But their strikes came to an abrupt end on January 3 after military police shot into crowds of protesters in Phnom Penh, killing five and injuring more than 40 others.
Hoping to head off a repeat of the deadly standoff, the ILO offered the Labor Ministry its assistance in January to come up with a “more robust” method for setting the minimum wage based on solid research, something the government, factories and unions would all be happy with. This workshop, which ends today, was to be the first chance for the three sides to talk to each other about how to get there. It was also meant to mark the first tripartite meeting since January’s lethal suppression.
ILO national coordinator Tun Sophorn said he would have liked to see a stronger presence from the factories, but noted that the invitations were the Labor Ministry’s responsibility.
“We really want to see good will and engagement in this tripartite process…and if they [employers] chose not to come, how could we do anything?” he said.
But Mr. Sophorn said factory owner’s light presence at the workshop would be mitigated by their seats on the LAC, which will get a full report on the workshop and decide what to do next.
Like Mr. Momthol, Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said the employers were still short on faith in the unions’ good will.
“In the minds of the employers there is still not a good atmosphere to sit down and have a talk between the two sides because the unions still threaten to protest,” he said, urging both the unions and employers to try harder to understand each other.
A group of eight garment worker unions are planning to go ahead with an International Labor Day rally in central Phnom Penh on May 1 to keep pressing for a $160 minimum wage, despite City Hall’s decision Thursday afternoon to deny them permission.
But Mr. Suor did not believe the low turnout from employers would significantly hurt the government’s reform efforts because the representative GMAC sent to the workshop would report back to the employers and let them know what happened.
“I would like to note that this workshop is not for making decisions,” Mr. Suor added. “We just collect the opinions and visions of the participants and submit them to the LAC so it can decide.”
In his opening remarks at the workshop, Labor Minister Ith Samheng, who also chairs the LAC, spoke of a wage-setting system that would account for everything from the price of garment inputs, wages in competing countries, and the need for employers to turn a profit and workers to make a living wage.
The unions behind the strikes want to reform the LAC by giving it a permanent secretariat to better handle the committee’s workload, a dedicated and balanced research department, an equal number of seats for all three sides, and letting members keep their votes a secret in order to avoid undue pressure.
Several GMAC officials did not answer calls.