Unions Displeased With Wage Hike, But Not Enough to Strike

Four of the country’s most prominent unions say they will not strike over the government’s latest rejection of their wage demands for garment workers, making a repeat of the unrest that rocked the garment sector in December and January increasingly unlikely.

But they warned that protests could pick up again if landlords around the factories start raising their rents and utility fees, as they usually do whenever wages increase.

Several unions staged crippling strikes that briefly brought the $5.5 billion garment sector to a standstill when the government rejected their demands for a $160 monthly minimum wage in December last year. The strikes only came to an end after military police shot into a crowd of protesters in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing at least five workers and injuring dozens more.

Unions this time around had lowered their demands to $140, but still came up short when the Labor Ministry last week decided to raise the current minimum wage of $100 to $128.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the largest independent union in the country, said nearly all his factory representatives voted against going on strike at a meeting Friday evening.

Between going on strike, happily accepting the new wage, and objecting to the new wage but opting not to strike, almost all of the roughly 100 representatives at the meeting voted for the third option.

“That means they are not happy, but we will not strike,” Mr. Thorn said Sunday. “So they will try to find another way [to raise the wage], but not a strike.”

He said the union representatives were passing on the sentiments of the garment workers at their factories.

“They say we don’t want to strike because the government will crack down…and they want to try to work through the brands,” he said.

During the negotiations leading up to the Labor Ministry decision last week, some of the international brands currently sourcing from Cambodia promised to pay more for their orders in order to help factories here bear the burden of any wage hike. Mr. Thorn said the unions’ focus now will be to make sure the brands keep their pledge, and pay enough to let the factories pay workers even more than the mandated $128.

The unions also want to ask the government to help keep rent and utility prices down after the new wage comes into effect in January. Landlords around the garment factories typically raise their prices whenever the factories raise their wages, counteracting the benefits of a pay raise.

Mr. Thorn said he was planning to bring together a few thousand of his members in Phnom Penh some time in early December to gather more input on exactly how they want the union to press ahead.

Ken Chhenglang, acting president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia, said her representatives also voted decisively against going on strike—so long as rent, utilities and other costs around the factories did not rise.

“If rent and food prices go up, there will be huge strikes and protests again,” she said. “They [workers] asked our union and the government to take action to stop rent and food prices increasing. The higher wage will be worthless if prices go up. The extra money will just go into the pockets of the landlords.”

Free Trade Union president Chea Mony, who joined the strikes in December and January, said his union would also refrain from striking for fear of triggering another bloody government crackdown.

Union leader Pav Sina, who also joined the last round of strikes, said he was still calling his factory representatives to get feedback from their members. But he said the representatives he had spoken with so far were also reporting little appetite for more strikes.

Like Ms. Chhenglang, though, he warned that their mood could change if landlords try to take advantage of the new minimum wage the way they have in the past.

“If the government and institutions can’t stop prices from increasing, there will be a movement of workers to demand even higher wages, because they won’t have a choice,” he said.

dara@cambodiadaily.com, peter@cambodiadaily.com

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