Gov’t Tells Unions to Pick a Minimum Wage or Lose Their Say

The Labor Ministry on Tuesday warned unions that if they failed to reach a consensus on a new minimum wage for the garment sector ahead of Friday’s Labor Advisory Committee meeting on the issue, the committee would not consider any proposal from the unions at all.

The committee, which includes representatives from the Labor Ministry, garment factories and trade unions, is tasked with proposing a new minimum wage to the ministry, which will make the final decision. But the unions, split between those that hew close to the government line and those that do not, have been struggling to agree on a number.

At a meeting hosted by the Labor Ministry on Tuesday, ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the unions would forfeit their right to propose a raise if all seven union leaders on the 28-member committee could not agree on a figure.

“If they do not have one number for the negotiations, we will only use the number from the employers in the negotiations. This is a very important point,” Mr. Sour said. “The employers have done it. Now it’s time for the unions to come together and compromise to come up with a common number.”

At the heart of the unions’ latest struggle to reach a consensus is a new survey commissioned by labor rights groups on how much garment workers earn and spend each month. The researchers say median take-home pay—including overtime, bonuses and allowances —is $191 and that median spending—including the money workers send home to their families—is $207.

Some unions want to propose a minimum wage of $207 at the committee negotiations. Others want to go into the negotiations with a proposed raise of only 10 or 15 percent. They failed to reach a consensus for at least the second time on Monday and plan to try again this afternoon.

Ath Thorn, a committee member who heads the largest independent union in the country, said he remained optimistic that the unions would reach a compromise by Friday, but rejected Mr. Sour’s claim that there was a rule requiring them to come to a consensus.

“It is not right, and the person who raises this, he is not a responsible person,” he said. “We are trying to find a common figure, but even if we do not, we still have the right to negotiate.”

At their own press conference on the wage negotiations Tuesday, employers said that they would propose a raise to the minimum wage—reversing their prior position—but would not specify a figure.

“Some level of increase will be put forward on the 25th,” said Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC).

Last month, GMAC deputy secretary-general Kaing Monika said that in the coming negotiations with the unions, the association would stand behind the majority of its members, who in a recent poll said they could not afford any raise at all in the face of growing competition from other major garment exporting countries.

“We can’t go against the majority,” Mr. Monika said at the time.

Despite Mr. Sou Ieng’s reluctance to reveal how much of a raise employers would propose on Friday, the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Association—which he is president of—released a statement Tuesday recommending that the minimum wage increase by no more than the inflation rate, or less than 3 percent. Anything more, they warned, and Cambodia’s garment sector, which accounts for roughly a third of the country’s gross domestic product, could start to collapse.

Mr. Sou Ieng claimed that the average garment worker was now taking home up to $250 per month, much more than the median $191 suggested by the latest survey. He criticized the survey as the work of ill-intentioned foreigners and said it would only prove “disruptive.”

International labor rights groups, including the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, commissioned the survey. It was carried out by DC Research, a Cambodian firm that recruited Cambodian union members to do much of the fieldwork.

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