More than 500 disgruntled factory workers plan to strike today to protest the failure of managers and the Labor Ministry to resolve a nearly yearlong dispute, union officials said Tuesday.
Meas Marakot, union president at Top-One Garments Cambodia Mfg Co Ltd in Russei Keo district, said managers have repeatedly rejected the union’s bid for a collective bargaining agreement on working conditions and pay since December.
Collective bargaining agreements address problems affecting a majority of workers and act as an addendum to the labor law within a specific factory.
The threatened Top-One strike comes in the midst of a Commerce Ministry campaign to repair Cambodia’s reputation for high labor standards, which came under fire when British actress Minnie Driver vowed last month to illuminate alleged garment industry exploitation in Cambodia.
The strike may also mark the start of a larger effort by unions to draw attention to industry problems as Cambodia’s US garment bonus quota is up for review this month. The bonus award is directly linked to labor conditions.
Members of the Solidarity Workers Union of Top-One, which represents 538 of approximately 700 workers, are demanding pay raises, bathroom stalls with door locks and a medical clinic in good condition with sufficient medicine.
“The bathroom and toilet should be clean and should have enough water. The bathroom has no lock to ensure privacy,” Meas Marakot said last week.
Workers, who receive a $45 monthly salary, are demanding a raise appropriate to their seniority. The union also is demanding that new mothers receive a half-salary during their 90-day maternity leave, which is a provision of the labor law.
Meas Marakot said factory lawyer David Chanaiwa has stymied efforts to shape a collective bargaining agreement. Censured by the Cambodian Bar Association earlier this year, Chanaiwa has come under fire from the US and Cambodian governments for anti-union discrimination.
Chanaiwa on Tuesday said negotiations stalled because the union pulled out of talks. However, Top-One’s manager sent a letter to the union last month saying he was too busy with the factory’s 2004 master plan to bargain.
“The space is limited. You can’t improve overnight. Like the [health] clinic—they said they need many beds, but not many people are using it. The toilets seem just fine,” Chanaiwa said.
Huot Chanthy, director of the Labor Ministry’s Inspections Department, said it is not the ministry’s responsibility to intervene in labor disputes, but added that several collective bargaining agreements have been achieved in the past.
An October International Labor Organization report said that of 61 factories reviewed, 53 did not have collective bargaining agreements. Seven of the eight standing agreements were problematic, with only one offering better conditions than the law provides.
Huot Chanthy denied allegations made by Meas Marakot that labor inspectors censure workers for requesting ministerial interventions in disputes and that inspectors collude with factory managers.
Seng Phally, the Cambodian Labor Organization’s executive director, said last week that although little tangible proof exists to connect employers and ministry officials, such relationships frequently suppress workers’ bids for collective bargaining agreements.
In 2002, the US increased the number of garments imported from Cambodia by 3 percent, a reward for improving working conditions and supporting unionization. The quota bonus now stands at 12 percent of the maximum 18 percent.
The 2002 visit by US labor experts—who met with unions, manufacturers and labor and commerce officials—prompted the release of two jailed union leaders and an inquiry by Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh into anti-union discrimination at 28 factories.
This is the last year that Cambodia will receive a garment quota bonus, as all bilateral trade agreements must end by 2005, in accordance with the country’s expected accession to the World Trade Organization. (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)