Unions and employers agreed yesterday to a government-brokered strategy to negotiate benefits for garment workers, even as employers reaffirmed their intent to pursue legal action against those who led mass strikes earlier this month, representatives of both sides said.
The announcement brought the possibility of satisfying union demands a step closer. Following a meeting chaired by Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, the parties agreed to form a working group to negotiate on benefits, according to Cambodian Labor Confederation President Ath Thon.
“The working group will discuss the union proposal to increase the other benefits for the workers,” he said.
The group will be made up of five representatives from the unions, five from the employers and two from the government, Mr Thon said.
No date has yet been arranged for the first meeting but names of proposed committee members must be submitted tomorrow, he said. The five union representatives should be easy to choose, he added: one from each of Cambodia’s five labor confederations.
That would allow those unions who did not participate in the strikes to be involved in the negotiations. Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, confirmed he would be taking part in negotiations as one of the union representatives.
Employers and unions are set to meet again today, to sign an agreement sponsored by the International Labor Organization on improving industrial relations, Mr Thon added.
Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical officer of the ILO’s Better Factories program, praised the government for its part in establishing the working group.
“The key message is that the government was there to facilitate the process…and resolve the issue. Establishing this working group continues the process of getting a wider perspective…and basically allows all the unions to participate,” he said.
Mr Sam Heng, the Social Affairs minister, also asked employers to cease legal actions against union representatives involved in organizing the mass strikes that swept the industry earlier this month.
However, employers said they would not consider dropping the cases, according to Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
Mr Loo said some factories had suffered financial losses as a result of the strikes and had petitioned the courts to determine who was responsible for those losses.
“This is our right…. Workers have the right to strike, but we have a right to protect ourselves under the law,” he said.
He added that if unions wished to dispute court rulings that declared the strikes illegal, they should do so within the court framework.
“If the unions maintain the legality of the strikes, why not bring this up to the court,” he said.
The employers’ defiance may not please their customers. Five of the garment industry’s most influential buyers, including Adidas, Gap and Disney, wrote to both sides last week calling for an end to “inflammatory action or counterproductive rhetoric.”