Cambodian workers got a glimpse of life in a Swedish factory Sunday, and the effect was electric.
Scores of garment workers listened politely as union official Carina Carlstrom described her 90-year-old union and its commitment to democracy.
But when she said Swedish factory workers get a year’s maternity leave, at 80 percent of salary, they snapped to attention.
“There is also one month’s leave for the father, if he wants it,’’ she said, noting her union defines a living wage as one worker earning enough to support a family of six.
The audience buzzed with excitement.
Sweden, with perhaps the best working conditions in the world, is an acknowledged workers’ paradise. It’s safe to say that Cambodia, which has just begun to reindustrialize, lags far behind.
How Cambodia can begin to bridge that gulf was the theme of a daylong seminar Sunday at the Russian Cultural Center.
The seminar, organized by Star Kampuchea, brought together about 120 people representing garment workers, unions, the government and clothing manufacturers to discuss the future of labor in Cambodia.
The event, a week before the next round of labor demonstrations planned by garment workers in Phnom Penh, offered a chance for all sides to offer their ideas.
Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian from Siem Reap, said the government could redirect some of the money it makes off the US garment quota.
Son Chhay says the government has made about $30 million from auctioning the quota to textile manufacturers, “and most of the money has been misused or pocketed by some high-ranking government members,’’ he claimed.
He proposed that 5 percent be redirected to support labor unions, while 15 percent go to the Ministry of Social Affairs to, among other things, provide medical and legal assistance to workers.
He also recommended that unions draft a law to set up a Labor Court, to deal with complaints against bad employers. ‘’The government is ignoring [the] problem,’’ he said, but if unions draft the law, ‘’I will give support to make this heard and known in the parliament as well as the public.’’
Dy Pich, speaking for unionized workers, said that while some employers abide by the Labor Code, most don’t. She said employees can be fired for no reason, forced to work overtime, have no health insurance and earn low salaries.
Union member Mao Vannak complained that workers cannot live on $40 per month, saying that salaries have not increased in five years while the cost of living has risen.
Unions want $70 per month, a workweek of 44 hours, and 26 holidays.
The afternoon session featured Oum Mean, director general of labor and vocational training at the Ministry of Labor, who said that industrialization in Cambodia is a new experience for employers and employees, and they must learn to work together.
Roger Tan, general secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, compared a successful employer-employee relationship to a marriage.
If each party knows his or her role and performs it properly, he said, the result is a harmonious and prosperous partnership. If either side shirks responsibility, the other is entitled to end the relationship.
“Any relationship that lasts must be based on respect, trust and willingness to cooperate, ‘’ he said.
He said employers demand overtime when they have to make up for lost time due to shipments stalled by bureaucrats or other unforeseeable problems. If factories miss deadlines, he said, they will lose contracts and Cambodia will get a reputation as unreliable.
And, he said, the converse is also true. “A stable government and stable labor force score very high in an investor’s evaluation.’’