Unions Plan 2nd Round of Mass Strikes

After the Court of Appeal denied bail to 21 jailed protesters on Tuesday, 16 labor unions and associations announced Wednesday that they will retaliate by calling a nationwide labor strike in the middle of March.

The unions, which mainly represent workers in the garment industry, said they will also call on their members to cease working overtime between February 24 and 28 to demonstrate to factory owners and the government the importance of taking their demands seriously.

“From [February] 18 to 23, our unions will gather in front of factories to disseminate information about our seven demands,” said Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.

The demands include the release of the 21 protest prisoners, a $160 minimum wage for garment workers, the prosecution of state forces who killed five protesting strikers on January 3, an end to the government’s ban on demonstrations, an end to legal action against union leaders who organized the first round of nationwide strike in December, and the payment of worker’s salaries during the strike.

Ms. Sophorn said the unions have given the government ample time to consider their demands, which have not changed fundamentally since December mass strikes.

“We are disappointed with the government and the courts because we have given them a lot of time to solve these problems, but they have failed to deal with it,” Ms. Sophorn said. “Therefore, it is our turn to take mass action to pressure the government to release the [21 prisoners] and increase worker salaries to $160,” she said.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that the participating unions will invite members of a government committee studying the minimum wage to a public forum on March 8, where they will have a final chance to reach a deal on the union’s demands.

“We will invite government officials to attend the forum, and if they have no solution for all of us, we will hold a mass nationwide strike,” Mr. Sina said.

Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said that the unions’ seven demands were outdated issues that no longer warranted discussion.

“These problems are already past,” Mr. Sour said. “If they want to hold a public forum they should choose a new topic.”

After the first meeting last week of the government’s special committee on the minimum wage, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon, Mr. Sour said that the committee did not discuss further raises to the minimum wage, as the decision in December to raise the monthly wage to $100 was final.

As part of a five-year wage plan approved in December, the government said it would raise the minimum wage in the garment sector to $160 over the next five years, despite a government study showing that the current livable wage for garment workers is between $157 and $177.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), responded to the threat of renewed strikes saying he hoped “the government is diligent in enforcing the law.”

“We take this [as] directly classified as a threat, but we can only defer to the government,” Mr. Loo said.

“I think workers have to weigh for themselves what they stand to lose, and whether the demands are reasonable or not and then decide whether they want to support the unions,” he said.

Mr. Loo also said that workers would not receive wages for work days lost to the strikes in December and January.

Eight non-government aligned garment unions wrote to GMAC last Thursday demanding that workers be paid for the last strike days.

“We would like to state anew that the working contract was suspended, and the wages and attendance bonus will not be paid [for time lost] during the strike,” GMAC said in a letter on Tuesday.

Mr. Loo said that factories that told workers to stay home during the strike would have to settle the issue with their own workers.

“In instances whereby [factories] closed and told workers to stay at home, some have opted to pay half [of the lost salaries]; some have…negotiated some other kind of compromise,” Mr. Loo said.

“But as a generic rule, what we are telling [employers] is if your workers willingly participated in the strike, they are not entitled to wages.”

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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