Unions to March After Failure to Address Minimum Wage

Six garment worker unions and two general labor unions said Thursday that they will march on Monday along Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay and to various foreign embassies to protest the government’s inaction to address their calls for a higher minimum wage.

The call to action was issued after a high-level government committee failed Thursday to address the minimum wage issue, saying there was no plan for any raise at this time.

“We have decided on Monday to gather more than 300 people from different unions and NGOs to…march to the shrine near the riverside,” said Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

Afterward, the unions will deliver a seven-point petition seeking support from foreign embassies including the U.S., China, France and Britain, Mr. Sina said.

“We will not protest on that day. We just plan to submit petitions with embassies to ask for their help in achieving our demands,” he said.

The petition calls for a $160 minimum wage for garment workers, the release of 23 protesters imprisoned last month during strikes for a higher minimum wage, the prosecution of state forces who killed five protesters on January 3, an end to the government’s ban on demonstrations, an end to legal action against union leaders who organized a nationwide strike in December, and the payment of salaries for workers who took part in that strike.

On Thursday, a committee established by Prime Minister Hun Sen to “study” wages for the country’s 600,000 garment workers met for the first time, but officials at the meeting said that there was no consideration of revising the Ministry of Labor’s December 31 decision to raise the minimum wage in the garment industry to $100 per month.

“At the meeting today there was no discussion about figures for a new minimum wage,” said Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor.

“We will not change the minimum wage because the Labor Advisory Council (LAC) already made a decision. The meeting today was just to share more information with the new committee,” Mr. Sour added.

In his opening remarks at Thursday’s meeting, and before journalists were asked to leave, Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon said that the government “will increase minimum wage for all garment and shoe factory workers in accordance with the economic situation every year.”

Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition for Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said that the outcome of the government-only meeting was unacceptable, as no progress was made on resuming negotiations over the minimum wage, as the unions have demanded.

“We do not agree with this and the workers will maintain their stance and continue protesting if the government does not find a solution to address their demands for $160,” he said.

“If the government creates a new committee just for study and research, it is useless,” Mr. Athit said.

“I think that this committee cannot do anything to help the workers.”

The LAC, composed of representatives from the government, garment factory owners and unions, decided in December to raise the minimum wage to $95, a figure that was rejected by six unions claiming to represent 300,000 workers in garment factories.

Following two days of protests by thousands of garment workers in December that blocked Russian Boulevard in front of the Labor Ministry, the government unilaterally decided to raise the minimum wage another $5 per month without consulting the LAC.

The strike was crushed on January 2 and 3 when soldiers and military police violently broke up protests that had been, up to that point, largely peaceful, resulting in the killing of 5, the wounding of more than 40 and the continued detention of 23 others in a maximum security prison.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia estimated that it lost about $200 million during the strikes in December, however garment exports continued to rise last year, increasing to $5.53 billion, a 20 percent increase on 2012.

Before the latest wage revision by the LAC, a working group overseen by the government found that a living wage for garment workers is about $160 per month.

However, the Ministry of Labor said that such a steep wage increase would scare away foreign investment in the sector.

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