Garment Factories, Unions Edge Closer to Wage Deal

Some of the unions that have been demanding a hefty $77 raise to the current monthly minimum wage of $100 for the country’s garment workers said Thursday they were willing to go as low as a $35 increase, though others refused to budge.

Before closing the doors to reporters at a meeting with several of the unions Thursday, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said he heard of the reduction in the unions’ demands from ministry officials who had met recently with Dave Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based group that advocates for trade unions.

“I…know that Mr. David John Welsh met with [Labor Ministry officials] Oum Mean and Sat Samoth and that [the unions’] last position was between $135 and $140,” he said. “It is an improvement.” But Mr. Sam Heng added that about 30 of the biggest factories had actually moved further away from finding common ground with unions, withdrawing an earlier offer of a $15 raise and sticking to $10.

“They still hold strongly to this position and do not change,” he said.

Contacted after the meeting, Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, confirmed that his union had softened its demand.

“Our position is that we can accept between $135 and $140,” he said. “But if we cannot get this, we will protest.”

However, Kong Athith, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the largest independent union in the country, said the factories’ refusal to budge meant he wouldn’t either.

“It is not an official agreement between the unions,” he said of the $135 to $140 proposal. “We will stick to our demand for $170. We cannot go lower because the employers hold strong to $110.”

Mr. Welsh, of the Solidarity Center, said he had been meeting with the unions every two or three days. But he declined to confirm or deny the new wage range mentioned by Mr. Sam Heng and Mr. Sina because the talks were meant to be confidential.

“The one conclusion of the meeting was not to air the wage positions,” he said.

Even so, Mr. Welsh said there had been progress, at least with the unions.

“There is a range of a bottom line figure the unions will not go below,” he said. “The unions have made concessions, the employers have made zero concessions.”

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting garment factories, could not be reached for comment. In an interview last week, the association’s secretary-general, Ken Loo, said the factories would not go above $110 because it was the most they could realistically afford without driving their buyers off to other countries with cheaper or more productive workers.

Some of the major European brands that buy from Cambodia have offered to raise the prices they pay factories to help them meet workers’ wage demands. But factory owners say more buyers will have to make the same pledge before it has any impact on negotiations.

Mr. Welsh conceded that U.S. brands buying from Cambodia were the “missing piece” in the deal and that the next few weeks would be spent lobbying them to join their European counterparts.

He said the Labor Ministry hoped to be able to announce a new minimum wage, which will take effect in January, before the start of the Water Festival on November 5.,

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