Representatives from 25 trade unions Monday sent a request to the Ministry of Labor seeking several changes to a controversial draft union law and asking that a new $160 monthly minimum wage for the country’s volatile garment sector take effect in October.
Garment factory owners say the current preponderance of unions makes it nearly impossible to effectively negotiate with workers. Unions not aligned with the ruling CPP fear the new law would further tighten what they consider an already restrictive environment for independent trade groups.
“With this law, employers will be able to violate workers’ rights legally if some provisions are not changed,” Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said during Monday’s meeting. “Unions have the right to complain already, so why do we need this law?”
Mr. Thorn, who heads the largest independent trade union in the country, would like to see the government scrap its plans for the law altogether. The request the unions passed Monday, however, simply recommends several changes to the draft.
Chief among their complaints, Mr. Thorn said, was the draft’s proposal that the threshold for forming a new union be 20 percent of the workers at a given workplace. Cambodia’s garment factories can employ anywhere from a few hundred people to several thousand.
Mr. Thorn said the unions at Monday’s meeting agreed that the threshold should stay where it is, at eight people.
The International Labor Organization has also taken issue with the draft.
At a workshop on the draft union law for government, factory and union representatives in Phnom Penh in May, ILO labor relations specialist John Ritchotte said it failed to comply with Cambodia’s ILO convention obligations on several points and was actually a step backward compared to earlier versions.
Among his main criticisms of the draft was the proposed 20 percent threshold for forming a union, which he called “unreasonably high.”
As for the monthly minimum wage, currently set at $100, Mr. Thorn said the unions at Monday’s meeting agreed to ask the Labor Ministry to bump it up to $160 by October.
Calls for a $160 minimum wage were at the heart of strikes in late December and early January that briefly brought the garment industry to a halt. Security forces finally put down the increasingly rowdy protests by firing into a crowd of workers in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing at least five people.
Last month, unions not aligned with the government were outvoted when the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC)—a body of government, factory and union representatives—agreed that any raise of the minimum wage should not take effect until January 1. The LAC’s working group on the minimum wage is scheduled to meet again later this month.
Labor Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.