The trade unions behind recently suspended nationwide strikes defended their ongoing demand for a $160 monthly minimum wage for the country’s 600,000 garment workers on Wednesday, and vowed to resume the strikes if the government and factories did not agree to negotiations soon.
“We just suspend it [the strikes] for a time,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions. “If there is no…appropriate solution for the workers, there will be a declaration for [another] mass strike, a peaceful mass strike.”
The strikes had forced many of the country’s 500-plus garment factories to shut down or scale back production for several days and came to a violent end on January 3 when military police shot into crowds of protesters outside a Phnom Penh factory, killing five and wounding dozens.
Eight unions Wednesday put out a statement calling for wage negotiations to resume and defended their pay demand at a press conference in Phnom Penh amid the government’s refusal to push the minimum wage—now set at $80 a month—past $100.
The government and factories say that immediately doubling the minimum wage would push Cambodia well past garment sector wages in competing countries and result in many garment factories, which now dominate Cambodia’s export industries and generated more than $5 billion last year, to take their business elsewhere.
But as union leaders argued Wednesday, the $160 they are demanding was in line with the proposals that came out of a working group set up late last year by the government itself.
In August, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng set up a working group of government, factory and union representatives to hash out an appropriate wage structure for the garment sector. Two months later, a task force set up by the committee concluded that garment workers needed at least $157 a month to live decently, a figure the unions accepted.
This is why unions will not accept the $95—since raised to $100—the government set as the new minimum wage on December 24, said Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation of Textile workers in Cambodia.
“So the increase [to $95] was not made on any basis, so the way they did it the workers were not satisfied…. It was not based on research,” she said. “That is why our workers waged the strike.”
When he announced the Labor Ministry’s decision to set the wage at $95 in late December, Mr. Sam Heng said the government wanted to go higher but had to keep the wages in neighboring countries in mind as well.
According to December figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the top 25 garment-exporting countries in the world, plus Burma, Cambodia’s minimum wage of $80 was the eighth-lowest. Bangladesh, Burma and Vietnam had minimum wages of $72.03, $57.68 and $77.93, respectively.
The unions behind the recent strikes want any future talks to include a formal role for the ILO.
“We need the ILO to join the negotiations. If the ILO is present we will have transparency,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has said it would only resume wage negotiations if and when the government reconvenes the Labor Advisory Council, which includes representatives from the government, factories and unions but not the ILO.