Unions Come to Consensus on Wage Proposal

A disparate group of independent and pro-government trade unions on Tuesday agreed to make $168 their proposal for the garment sector’s new monthly minimum wage in ongoing negotiations with employers, bridging weeks of differences.

With the Labor Ministry pushing the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC)—made up of government, factory and union representatives—to make its proposal to the ministry by Monday, unions were warned that they would not be allowed to suggest any raise at all if they could not all agree on a single figure.

Some unions started out hoping to push the current minimum wage of $128 up to $207, the median monthly spending of the country’s 700,000 garment workers according to a new survey. Other unions aligned with the government wanted a raise of no more than 10 to 15 percent. The two sides later proposed $178 and $158, respectively, and finally agreed to split the difference Tuesday morning.

The compromise was hashed out among 14 of the 15 members of the LAC’s union working group, which includes unions not on the committee and was formed to let more unions have a say in the wage negotiations.

According to a statement from the group Tuesday, “the unions have unanimously decided on a single figure, $168, for the tripartite negotiations.”

Ath Thorn, who leads the largest independent union in the country, had instructed his representative at Tuesday’s negotiations to go along with $168.

After pro-government unions threatened to make $158 the unions’ official proposal to the LAC last week, Mr. Thorn threatened to keep pushing for $178 and called for a new round of demonstrations if he was ignored. On Tuesday, he said the other side’s willingness to budge convinced him to do the same.

“We compromise,” he said. “We showed that if you [move] a little bit up then I [will move] a little bit down.”

Mr. Thorn said he still did not believe the figure they agreed on was what workers deserved, but went along with the number for the sake of unity.

Union leader Yaing Sophorn said $168 was the lowest she was prepared to go.

“I think $168 is high enough for us to accept for 2016,” she said. “If we had not reached $168, I would have joined other unions to go on strike.”

Mann Senghak, an adviser to the Free Trade Union, said he believed the figure they settled on was low enough to take into negotiations with the factories.

“I think $168 is not too high,” he said. “But the raise will depend on the economic situation, and we want to find a figure close to what [employers] can give.”

However, $168 is far more than what the factories say they can afford.

Though employers have yet to announce their exact proposal to the LAC, they said last week that the minimum wage should not rise by more than 3 percent in order to keep it at or below the inflation rate.

Employers say the 28-percent raise they had to absorb this year—from $100 to $128—has already started to scare off buyers and that another large increase would do major damage to the industry.

The Labor Ministry intends to settle on a raise by the end of next month and put it into force on January 1.

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