More than 10,000 garment workers from eight factories went on strike yesterday to demand a further increase to the newly announced $5 rise to the monthly minimum wage in the garment manufacturing sector, union officials said.
The unannounced strike follows last week’s Labor Advisory Committee announcement that the minimum wage for the sector is set to rise by $5 to $61 in October.
Although the Free Trade Union threatened in May that it would begin a strike yesterday if the minimum wage did not rise by at least $20, the union announced this week that it would support the LAC’s $5 offer and cancel the strike.
Reports yesterday indicated that that many of the striking workers were FTU members who disagreed with their union’s acceptance of the lower wage increase.
FTU President Chea Mony said yesterday that more than 10,000 garment workers had gone on strike in at least eight factories in Phnom Penh and Kompong Cham province. He estimated that about 90 percent of the strikers were FTU members.
The workers were striking because they want a minimum wage increase of more than $5, an immediate implementation of the new minimum wage set out by LAC and improved working conditions in their factories, Mr Mony said.
Mr Mony said that some of the strikers did not know that the FTU had called off the scheduled strike. He admitted also that some FTU members had disregarded the union’s decision to accept the $5 increase, and claimed they were “incited by other unions” to go on strike to demand a higher wage.
“I could control all 85,000 [FTU] workers if there was no incitement from other unions,” Mr Mony said, adding that the strikers still had his support, even if he did not have theirs.
“I support them because they are like my children, if they do wrong or right I still support them. They protest because they are angry,” Mr Mony said.
Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he knew workers had gone on strike at four factories in Phnom Penh and one in Kompong Speu province. He said the protesters wanted to negotiate a further increase of the minimum wage and an immediate implementation of the newly announced minimum wage of $61 while these negotiations take place.
“Around 20,000 workers are on strike in five factories,” he claimed. “They want to increase the salary more. This [minimum wage of the LAC] is not enough for them.”
Twenty out of the 25 present members of the LAC—a policymaking body comprising representatives from the government, labor unions and the garment industry—voted in support of the new $61 minimum wage last week.
Mr Thon said members of CCAWDU and the Cambodian National Confederation and many other garment workers disagreed with the LAC’s decision.
The FTU’s support for the $61 wage “does not represent the opinion of the workers,” Mr Thon added.
CCAWDU and CNC are now demanding a minimum wage of $75 and are planning more strikes for July 25 if this demand is not met, Mr Thon said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said he knew of strikes at five garment factories, adding however, that all these had been resolved over the course of the day. Mr Loo said the strikes had occurred by mistake because some of the workers did not know the FTU had cancelled the planned strike.
“As far I am aware all have been resolved. These were cases where people had been misinformed,” he said, adding, “Chea Mony went to explain this to the workers.”
Mr Loo said he was not worried by the strikes, as they had been “very few” in number, indicating the new minimum wage had been well received by garment workers.
Yen Sokkheang, a worker at Manhattan Textile Factory in Kompong Cham province’s Ampil commune, said he represented several hundred members of staff who went on strike there in order to demand an increase of at least $10.
“We have to get between $10 to $15 [increase], if not $20,” he said, “We still keep [protesting]. If we don’t get it today, we do it again tomorrow and the day after that.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor rights program at the Community Legal Education Center, said yesterday’s protests showed that the FTU’s decision to postpone the planned strike “does not reflect the opinion of the workers.”
“It’s a hard situation now,” he added. “[The labor unrest] is a big concern for me for the image of the garment industry.”
Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical adviser for the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories program, said the strike and the rift between the various garment workers’ unions could deter potential investors in the Cambodian garment sector.
“The unions have diverse opinions on what is an appropriate level of the minimum wage,” he said.
“What is important is that there is clarity for investors about what the minimum wage is and that there is maturity in the relations between unions and employers.”