Minister Brings ‘Activist’ Unions Into Wage Talks

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Tuesday promised to give unions who feel left out of current garment sector minimum wage negotiations a bigger say in the talks by creating a new working group that will advise the government’s current advisory committee.

The current Labor Advisory Committee (LAC)—composed of 14 representatives from the government, seven from the factories and seven from the unions—has so far failed to agree on how high to raise the current monthly rate of $100. The Labor Ministry called off the October 10 meeting at which the committee was supposed to make its recommendation and said it will meet instead in November, but has yet to say exactly when.

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng speaks with lawmakers at the National Assembly on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng speaks with lawmakers at the National Assembly on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

After meeting with lawmakers behind closed doors at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Mr. Sam Heng said the smaller unions left out of the LAC will get to have their say as part of a new working group that will give equal voice to all sides.

“From [October] 20th, the ministry will create a three-party working group that will include nine relevant unions, nine employer representatives and nine people from the government to have technical discussions before giving its ideas to the Labor Advisory Committee.”

Of the seven unions on the LAC, only two are considered independent of the government. Mr. Sam Heng did not say which unions would sit on the new working group, but he told reporters that they would be picked from among the more “activist” variety.

About 400 garment workers from those unions were gathered outside the Assembly. After his meeting with lawmakers, Mr. Sam Heng told them he wanted to see them get their raise.

“I really want you brothers and sisters to have a lot, because I know you have a hard time living,” he said. “But in negotiations, the one who asks wants to have a lot and the one who gives wants to give a little, so we have to talk until we agree with each other.”

The government and factories are both pushing for a modest $10 raise to the minimum wage. The unions say they will accept nothing less than a $50 increase.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, welcomed the news of the new working group, even though it won’t give his union a seat on the LAC itself.

“The government wants to avoid any incident or demonstration after the LAC announces a new wage,” he said. “This group will cut down the risk of violence and demonstrations because it includes the activist unions like mine.”

Several unions, including Mr. Sina’s, staged crippling nationwide strikes in December after the Labor Ministry set the minimum wage at $95, well below the $160 they were demanding at the time. The ministry raised the wage to $100 a few days later but failed to quell the unrest. The strikes did not come to an end until military police shot into a crowd of protesting garment workers in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing at least five and wounding dozens.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, also sounded cautiously optimistic about the new working group.

“It depends on who are the members,” he said.

With the labor minister himself chairing the LAC, he said it has been difficult to meet often. If the government representatives on the new working group are lower-level officials, he said they might be able to meet more often, “and every meeting is an opportunity.”

Addressing a separate issue, Mr. Sam Heng told the garment workers gathered outside the Assembly that he would try to settle an ongoing labor dispute at the Jian Le Footwear factory in Phnom Penh.

About 1,000 workers at the factory walked off the job in mid-September after a local union representative was fired when the factory changed owners in August. Workers are also worried that the sale of the factory will jeopardize their severance pay.

“I guarantee…that your severance pay will not be lost,” Mr. Sam Heng said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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