Unions Want Government, Factories to Resume Wage Talks

The unions behind several days of strikes that turned deadly this month said they will officially ask the Labor Ministry today to resume negotiations on a new minimum wage for the country’s critical garment sector, and said they would hold more street protests if their request is rebuffed.

The six unions led strikes for a doubling of the sector’s monthly minimum wage to $160 that peaked when military police shot into crowds of protesters outside a Phnom Penh factory on January 3, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

Though most workers have since returned to their factories and the Labor Ministry has offered to boost the minimum wage from $80 to $100 per month, the unions said Sunday that they were sticking to their demand for $160.

“We want negotiations with the Ministry of Labor and employers instead of protesting,” said Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union. “But in case they don’t find a solution for us we will continue to protest next month.”

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said three other unions would also sign the request for more negotiations, and that they had several other requests of the government as well.

“In the letter the union leaders will also ask the government to stop using violence on our workers during protests and to stop threatening our union leaders,” Mr. Sina said. “We ask that employers let our union leaders and representatives back to work after they have been accused of inciting workers to strike.”

He claimed that a number of factories across the country have been refusing to let their union representatives back to work this week, but did not provide details.

More than 100 factories have filed lawsuits at the municipal court against the six unions, accusing them of inciting the protesters to violence.

As for more negotiations on the minimum wage, a Labor Ministry official on Sunday said that was out of the question.

Prak Chanthoeun, the director general of the ministry’s general department of labor conflict, said the ministry was planning to meet with the unions soon, but only to urge them against holding any more protests.

“We will not talk about the minimum wage; we will just explain to them to not incite workers to protest,” he said.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) said it would not enter minimum wage negotiations with the unions either, because they represent only a minority of the unions in the sector.

“We never negotiate with the minority,” said Ken Loo, GMAC’s secretary-general. “In any system we should only negotiate with the majority.”

Mr. Loo said GMAC would, however, be willing to join any meeting of the broader Labor Advisory Committee if called by the Labor Ministry.

As for the unions’ claims that their representatives were not being allowed to return to work, Mr. Loo said the allegations were too broad and that the unions would have to provide GMAC with details before it could investigate.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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