Labor Committee Holds Off Action Until Unions Agree
This morning, as the early shifts begin at Cambodia’s garment factories, most employees will show up for work.
Union leaders said late Tuesday that workers at about 10 of the nation’s nearly 200 garment factories will stay off the job today in the wake of a Labor Advisory Committee meeting, which deferred action on the minimum wage after heated discussion.
The committee, made up of government officials, union leaders, and manufacturing representatives, met Tuesday to discuss one union’s demand for a wage increase from $40 per month to $70.
After nearly four hours of sometimes impassioned speeches by union leaders and business representatives, the committee opted to defer action until all five of the country’s major labor organizations can agree on what they want.
The committee’s decision seemed to surprise a number of observers, who had expected the wage increase to be simply voted down. Instead, for the first time, it looks as though the unions will try to work together to reach some kind of consensus, said one observer.
The prime mover behind the wage increase is the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which has demonstrated repeatedly in recent months for higher wages, a 44-hour work week and eight more holidays.
Union president Chea Vichea had threatened a strike going into the meeting. He said late Tuesday that workers at the 10 factories have voted to stay off the job, but no marches or demonstrations are planned and he does not know how long the job action will last.
Manufacturers have insisted they can’t increase wages, although they offered several proposals Tuesday that would allow workers to make more money.
“Labor wants an increase in salary, but we refuse,’’ said Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association.
He said that raising wages would force manufacturers to leave Cambodia for other, cheaper Asian countries.
But, he said, “we are willing to consider anything to improve living conditions for good workers, not bad workers or lazy workers.’’
Van Sou Ieng’s proposals included:
• A $5-per-month premium for workers who do not miss a single workday per month (for a total of 26). He said this will discourage absenteeism, which he said is higher in Cambodia than in other countries.
• Wage increases based on experience. Workers who complete two years on the job would get a 5 percent increase; after two more years, a 6 percent increase; and after two more years (or six total), a 7 percent increase.
For an average worker, that would be $40 per month for the first two years, rising to $42 in years 2-4; $44.52 in years 4-6; and $47.64 after six years.
Chea Vichea said people can’t live on that kind of money, and that manufacturers had not honored similar agreements in the past. He handed out fact sheets showing the following (all numbers are based on 26 workdays per month):
• Garment workers in Cambodia make $1.53 per day.
• Workers in the Philippines make about $3.40 per day; in southern China, between $1.38 and $2.06 per day; in Indonesia, about $2.30 per day; and in Taiwan, $19.23 per day.
• A study by the Cambodia Labor Organization found the average monthly expenditure for a family of five in Phnom Penh is $191.39, or more than $6 per calendar day.
Van Sou Ieng countered by saying he knew of many workers who make significantly more than the base rate. “A lot of workers don’t earn $40, they earn $55, or $60, or $70, even $100 per month,’’ he said. “Why? Because they produce more.’’
Morm Naim, the committee’s representative from the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions of Kampuchea, said that wasn’t a fair comparison.
People earning that much are usually working forced overtime, she said.
Several other committee members spoke during the meeting. Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodian Timber Industry Association, said the government should be careful about increasing the minimum wage as it would affect the entire economy.
Sath Salm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs said the minimum wage should be increased, although probably not to $70.
Soy Siphon, the undersecretary of state for Labor who chaired the meeting, said he agreed, and that more research needed to be done on wages in neighboring countries.
Boosting Cambodia’s rate by 80 percent in one step, as Chea Vichea demanded, is probably not realistic, he said.
Finally the committee, made up of five union representatives, five business representatives, and 10 government officials, rejected both the management and labor proposals in favor of deferring a decision until the unions can do more research and agree on what they want.
The meeting was delayed for nearly an hour because about 200 factory workers rallied outside the meeting location, at a Ministry of Labor health clinic just south of the Monivong bridge.
Soy Siphon refused to conduct the meeting until they went home, saying it was not an appropriate venue for demonstrations. After some debate, Chea Vichea told them to leave.