Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday that the government has no role in setting the minimum wage, as Cambodia is a market-driven economy, and shot down unnamed people who have been calling for the government to significantly raise the country’s floor wage of $61.
“It is impossible to make such a requirement,” he said, just one day after Kem Sohka, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party rallied hundreds of garment workers and promised a minimum wage of $150 should his party be elected to power.
“For those who said the government must pay this payment or that payment, it is wrong. That is not how a market economy works,” he said. “The requirements of a market economy are based on the enterprise’s profits.”
Representatives of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) have previously said that factory owners cannot afford the minimum wage increases being proposed by labor unions, and called instead for a free-market approach, in which wages would rise as factories compete for the country’s limited supply of labor.
But Dave Welsh, country manager of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said that on matters of national policymaking, such as setting the minimum wage, the government must make the ultimate decision.
“The government is saying that this is not their role, but this is exactly when they need to step in,” he said, adding that a failure on the government’s part to raise the minimum wage above $70, as proposed by GMAC, would likely bring about another spate of strikes in the sector.
“The leverage workers have now is to take industrial action. No one is promoting that, but industrial action happens when workers aren’t able to feed themselves,” Mr. Welsh added.
After a meeting on Monday between unions, the government and GMAC to negotiate a minimum wage, a rift emerged between unions along political lines.
Union leaders affiliated with the ruling CPP lowered their demand to $91, while independent unions and unions aligned with the opposition parties continued to stand behind a figure of $100 for the monthly minimum wage.
GMAC refused to budge from its support of a $9 hike to the monthly minimum wage, which currently stands at $61. The government also provides a monthly $5 health stipend to the more than 400,000 workers in the garment sector.
“We made our position clear in the meeting that if the employers don’t increase, the unions won’t change. But if the employers increase, we would talk about the number again,” said Ath Thun, president of the non-aligned Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, said that he hoped the two sides could move closer in their negotiations before the government eventually steps in to set a new minimum wage.
“The government would prefer that employers and workers arrive at an agreement, but it is difficult to reach. The best we can do is come as close as possible in our demands,” he said.
Chun Mon Thol, president of the CPP-aligned Cambodian Federation of Unions, said after Monday’s meeting that he hoped Mr. Hun Sen would eventually be obliged to decide in favor of the unions in their negotiations with GMAC.
“Hopefully we will not get an agreement [with GMAC] and we will have to get the government involved,” he said. “It is the season of the election, so hopefully the government will meet our demands and get the worker’s support.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)
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