Last June 22, an angry mob threw stones at the Luen Thai garment factory, one of dozens of incidents in which striking workers vented their rage against their employers.
This year, thanks to a change in management policy and a lot of hard work, company and union officials expect smoother sailing.
“Our relationship with Luen Thai went from very bad to very good,” said George McLeod, international liaison officer with the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Daniel McAtamney, general manager of the Luen Thai Garment (Cambodia) Co Ltd, agrees. Since the strike, company officials have met weekly with union and worker representatives, attempting to address their concerns and more clearly spell out the goals of the company and what workers are expected to do.
“This is still a learning curve for us,” McAtamney said. “Communications are still our biggest problem, but we hope this will make it easier.”
It was nearly a year ago that Cambodia’s labor situation boiled over, as a number of successive strikes disrupted the country’s garment industry for several weeks. The walkouts brought into sharp focus Cambodia’s need to deal with a rapidly changing relationship between workers and managers.
As Cambodia’s garment industry matures, union and management officials are starting to set up structures to resolve conflicts before they boil over into strikes.
Both sides agree it’s a daunting challenge, given Cambodia’s young, inexperienced, and poorly educated workforce and a group of mostly foreign employers.
Each side has weaknesses as well as strengths. Workers, for example, can get so charged up over their grievances that they race past their union leaders and violate labor law in their zeal for action.
Most recently, 600 workers at the New Star Shoes Factory in Sihanoukville staged an illegal wildcat strike when 14 workers were fired—and then, while the matter was being litigated, quit their jobs rather than wait for a court ruling they believed would be unfair.
Drastic action is very heady stuff, union leaders say—but it’s not always the most effective way to improve working conditions.
Foreign employers, meanwhile, sometimes fail to understand how their actions and motives are perceived by the workforce.
For example, Luen Thai launched a program of incentives that allowed highly motivated workers to earn as much as $100 per month—more than twice the minimum wage required by law.
Workers, however, perceived the program as funneling more money to a select few chosen by company officials—a case of “who you know” rather than “what you do.”
McAtamney says the workers were wrong, and that the company did not care who did the extra work—only that it got done. He said that’s the kind of issue that gets hashed out at the weekly meetings, when company managers meet with about 10 worker representatives to listen to complaints, explain company goals, and try to work out problems.
Some of the worker representatives are members of the Free Trade Union; some are appointed by the company. He says he doesn’t know how many of his 1,000 employees even belong to the FTU.
McLeod said the FTU has grown so fast in recent months—from 9,000 members last November to about 14,000 today—that it is impossible to communicate quickly and effectively with all members.
The union currently has about 40 authorized worker representatives, each assigned to a factory. But few of them have telephones, so it is difficult for union officials to react quickly when disputes arise.
McLeod said union leaders are working to improve communications with the members, so they can respond promptly when a dispute flares up and figure out what they need to do to reach their goals.
McAtamney said he hopes the leaders can help the workers better understand the labor law, so that they are less likely to stage an illegal strike or commit violent acts.
He said he hopes relations between union and management continue to improve, and said he has been impressed with the FTU’s efforts in that direction.
“Industry here doesn’t have a future” if workers keep striking illegally or attacking factories, he said. That kind of volatility spooks investors, who will write off Cambodia as too risky.
That’s why Luen Thai is willing to take the longer, harder route of trying to work with its employees, he said. “A strike doesn’t benefit anyone.”