Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh has suggested drawing up new rules that would reduce or eliminate automatic overtime pay for night-shift workers at garment factories, drawing protests from union leaders and Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua.
Cham Prasidh said he suggested to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor last week that the labor law is being misinterpreted to require that work performed after 10 pm be paid double. He said reducing the night wage would permit factories to hire more workers, making Cambodian factories more competitive.
“Without the night shift, we would need to import more machinery, and that would be very expensive and not very competitive. [With night shifts], we would have full use of the machinery,” he said.
But one of the country’s most active union federations, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, protested, saying the law can only be changed by parliament.
“Any ministerial circular that attempts to reduce wages is in contravention of the law,” said George McLeod, the union’s liaison officer. The union had been negotiating a compromise on the night wage rate with the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia before the “surprise announcement” by Cham Prasidh, McLeod said. Any agreement to reduce the night wage rate should be accompanied by concessions from factory owners, he said.
Cambodia is the only country in the region to require double-time for night work, and factory owners say it has hurt competitiveness. But if the government wants to increase competitiveness, it should focus on issues like taxes and customs bribery, Mu Sochua said. “Why do the workers have to suffer?”
In a recent letter to Mu Sochua, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers decried a Ministry of Social Affairs proposal that would reduce night-time wages from 200 percent of normal to 130 percent, calling it “a step away from democracy, dignity, human rights and the rule of law.”
Article 139 of the labor law reads, “If the overtime hours are worked at night or during weekly time off, the rate of [wage] increase shall be one hundred percent.” Cham Prasidh said this means that only overtime work at night deserves double pay.
But the previous section of the law says, “When the work schedule consists of split shifts, the enterprise’s management can normally set up only two shifts, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.” A subsequent section defines “night” hours as being after 10 pm and says night work must be paid at the rate set in Article 139.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)