Survey of Garment Workers’ Expenses to Come

Hoping to help fill the void in reliable data that has stymied past negotiations on the minimum wage for the country’s garment workers, an international team of labor rights groups Monday hired a local research firm to find out exactly how much the workers are spending on living costs.

They expect to have the results ready by early September, in time to inform the ongoing negotiations that will deliver a new minimum wage for the sector for 2016.

William Conklin, country director for the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, said his group signed the contract for the study with DC Research Monday. The other groups supporting the effort are Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Swiss-based IndustriALL Global Union, and the Workers’ Activities Bureau of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“It’s to give the unions some sort of quantifiable figures to take into the wage negotiations,” Mr. Conklin said.

He said the researchers would start by training about 15 unionists with local IndustriALL affiliates, who would in turn survey about 700 garment workers across the country on their current expenses.

The Labor Ministry conducted its last study on workers’ expenses in 2013, he said, but never published the results. The ILO’s Workers’ Activities Bureau was involved in a separate study the year before.

“In a way, an independent survey needs to be done every year,” Mr. Conklin said, in order to keep up with inflation.

Unions and garment workers regularly complain that landlords and food stalls around the factories increase their prices as soon as they get a raise, wiping away most of it.

In its own bid to add reliable data to the wage negotiations, the ILO launched a quarterly bulletin earlier this month filled with the latest statistics on garment sector investments, export earnings and wages. The inaugural issue did not include data on workers’ expenses, but it did show inflation eating away an ever larger percentage of their rising wages over the past six years.

Ath Thorn, who heads the largest independent union in the country, an IndustriALL affiliate, said the results of the new study on workers’ expenses could be ready by the end of next month.

“We trust this study and we will use the figure to negotiate because the research involves the ILO and is independent,” he said. “It will give us grounds to argue with the employers and the government because we will know the real cost of living.”

The current minimum wage for the garment sector, the only industry in the country with a wage floor, stands at $128 per month.

Mr. Thorn and a few like-minded union leaders have tentatively decided to ask for $177 for 2016. The factories say a stiff raise will drive away buyers and want wage hikes tied to gains in productivity.

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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