The government announced Tuesday that the minimum wage in the garment sector will be raised to $95 in April, a 19 percent increase over the current $80 monthly wage, as the first step in a five-year plan to raise the minimum wage to $160 by 2018.
Following the decision, which fell well short of unions’ demands for a 100 percent increase in the minimum wage next year, small-scale strikes and protests broke out across the country, while leaders of the country’s independent and opposition-aligned unions said they would organize nationwide strikes to force further increases.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng told reporters following the meeting of the Labor Advisory Council, the multiparty body that approves wage changes, that the government had given equal consideration to the demands of workers and factory owners.
“We wanted to raise wages more than this, but we couldn’t because raising the minimum wage depends on many factors, including living standards, production and competition to attract investors from neighboring countries,” Mr. Sam Heng said.
Despite the increase, wages in Cambodia remain among the lowest amid major garment-producing countries. Wages in China, Vietnam and Indonesia have increased sharply in recent years. Earlier this month, Bangladesh raised its minimum wage by 77 percent to $68.
Mr. Sam Heng urged unions not to protest.
“I would like to appeal to all union leaders not to take this problem to incite workers to hold strikes and demonstrations because it will not be advantageous for our workers and employers,” the minister said.
“We will not change this decision because we are afraid that investors will leave Cambodia.”
A group of about 100 workers affiliated with the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) gathered outside the meeting at the Ministry of Labor on Russian Boulevard and briefly blocked the road after the government’s decision was announced.
Ath Thorn, CCAWDU’s president, who was one of the two union leaders who voted against the government’s proposal, said that his unions would not heed the labor minister’s warning not to protest.
“We will issue an announcement to reject the wage raise and we will prepare to hold a mass demonstration across the country to demand a higher wage raise,” Mr. Thorn said.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union (FTU), said that his members had already started striking over the decision, and predicted that union leaders would not be able to prevent more strikes in the coming days.
“[Workers] will protest because they are not happy with the minimum wage. We have no control over managing all of these workers because their anger is exploding over the decision on the minimum wage,” Mr. Mony said.
About 3,000 workers affiliated with the FTU went on strike at the Manhattan garment factory in Kompong Cham province Tuesday, according to Yen Sokheang, a union representative at the factory, who said strikes there would continue today.
Oum Visal, a legal officer with CCAWDU, said that about 10,000 workers at 10 factories in Kandal province, Kompong Speu province and Phnom Penh went on strike after the decision was announced.
“I think that more workers from different factories will continue to strike tomorrow,” he said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said that the minimum wage in the country was irrelevant as long as factories continue to incur the cost of “illegal strikes” in the sector.
“It is not an increase in wages that we cannot afford. We need to see the elimination of illegal strikes. If illegal strikes continue to occur—and in fact occur in ever increasing frequency—even if the wage was reduced by half, the industry would still die,” Mr. Loo said.
The opposition CNRP released a statement Tuesday calling for the government to reconsider its decision and immediately raise the minimum wage to $160, as unions are demanding.
“The CNRP believes that if the minimum wage is not raised to $160 immediately, rising food prices and living expenses will make it impossible for garment workers to address their basic needs, and strikes that have plagued the garment sector lately will continue,” the statement says.
During a CNRP march Tuesday, opposition leader Sam Rainsy personally encouraged workers across the country to go on strike over the wage.
“We strongly support the nationwide protests tomorrow, and we also ask all workers to stop working and join a strike or protest to get $160 per month,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)