When garment workers assemble at Olympic Stadium Sunday morning for another labor march through the city, they can be sure the government will be paying attention.
In May, the workers took to the streets for two days of demonstrations over the May Day holiday. When they stayed away from work for a third day of marching, it became a strike.
That got the attention of garment manufacturers, who took out ads in newspapers and wrote letters to editors, calling the workers irresponsible and urging the government to do something.
The government has: it set a meeting for Tuesday with representatives of labor, management and the government to discuss an increase in the minimum wage.
One labor analyst said the Tuesday meeting of the Labor Advisory Committee is a direct result of the May demonstrations.
Although the committee, made up of 10 government officials, five union members and five industry representatives, is more likely to support management than labor, the analyst said, just getting it to meet is an achievement.
“The committee is supposed to meet on a regular basis, but it hasn’t met very often,’’ the analyst said, and just getting the minimum wage issue on the agenda is progress.
“It’s a step in the right direction,’’ agreed Katja Hemmerich, an organizer with the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. “There’s no saying there will be an increase, but at least they’re willing to talk about it.’’
Om Mean, general director of the labor and vocational training department at the Ministry of Labor, said the salary issue is the only one that will be discussed Tuesday.
“It is a difficult issue,’’ he said, and will require some time.
For months now, workers have said they want an increase in the minimum wage from $40 per month to $70.
They also want a shorter workweek, from 48 hours to 44; and an increase in holidays, from the current 18 to 26, the same as civil servants.
Worker Mao Vannak pointed out at a labor forum last week that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation.
“If they don’t give us a raise, then the government must reduce the [cost of living] to what it was five years ago.’’
Manufacturers are just as adamant that they do not want to pay more. “We have our own constraints,’’ said Roger Tan, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association. “We are not the only garment manufacturers in the world, and we are competing with all these other countries. Some even provide better quality at lower prices. We must be careful not to price ourselves out of the market.’’
Tan and other manufacturers have said that if the Cambodian workforce continues to demonstrate for unrealistic goals, they run the risk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. “[Manufacturers] will leave,’’ he said, “if it gets disadvantageous to be working here.’’
Labor organizers say they don’t buy that argument. They say the US quota system provides a strong incentive for textile manufacturers to stay in Cambodia.
The US sets limits on the amount of textiles it will import from a number of countries. A landmark 1999 agreement with Cambodia ties the quotas here to labor conditions.
Manufacturers often cite countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam as competing with Cambodia for US contracts.
Labor advocates say that while that is true, some of those countries are at their quota limits, while in Cambodia, only two of the 12 quota categories are full.
“So there’s still room here to expand,’’ said Hemmerich.
Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party member of the National Assembly and labor supporter, noted that the US increased Cambodia’s quota in January by 5 percent to encourage the government to enforce the Labor Code. That bonus was in addition to a scheduled 6 percent increase. If Cambodia demonstrates additional real progress, he said, the quota could be increased further.
“The threat to leave if wages go up? I doubt it,’’ said the analyst, who said manufacturers make more money here than in some other countries in Southeast Asia.
Cambodian workers “don’t start out as the most productive workers, because many are from rural areas where the whole idea of punching a clock is completely foreign. But after six months, they do pretty well,’’ the analyst said.
Tan agrees. If management and workers can come to an agreement, and owners do not have to face costly workplace disruptions, he said, “there is no reason for us to move.’’
Workers will decide Sunday whether demonstrations will continue for more than one day. Monday is a holiday, but Tuesday is a regular work day.
If workers extend the demonstrations for three days, as they did in May, the third day would become a defacto strike.
Organizers said Thursday that no decisions have been made.