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Why we must depoliticise the minimum wage

Dear Editor,

Sam Rainsy on Sunday said he and his party supported demands for a $180 minimum wage and asked the unions to push for it.

Once a politician speaks, those not supporting him would say, “It’s a political move intended to gain popularity.”

It might be true! On what basis has Rainsy arrived at $180? A minimum-wage level set solely according to political motives would lead to an economic catastrophe.

On the government side, any figure that comes out of the Labour Advisory Committee (LAC), right or wrong, could always be criticised by the opposition party and those not supporting the government because the LAC is perceived to be dominated by the government, with 14 members being the government representatives and seven each being the employer and union representatives.

The public at large naturally want high wages, thus are never satisfied with what the government decides.

Adopting the universal principle, Cambodia’s minimum-wage setting shall be based on relevant data taking into account, 1) Social criteria (needs of workers, cost of living, inflation, etc) and 2) economic criteria (impact on enterprise, impact on Cambodia’s competitiveness, and impact on labour market and employment).

The ILO for the first time this year has submitted a background document to the LAC to be used as a base for discussion and decision.

The document presents data on the five relevant social and economic criteria.

However, the document doesn’t make any recommendation on the level of the new wage to the Ministry of Labour. Making such a recommendation is the task of the LAC.

The document is indeed useful, but of equal importance is setting up a credible structure within the LAC so that nobody can accuse it of being a political tool.

We need a credible structure of the negotiation team whose final decision is believed to be fair by a larger section of the public.

South Korea’s set-up could be a good example.

Instead of being seen as dominated by the government, Korea’s Minimum Wage Council consists of nine representatives each from a public interest group (PIG), employer representatives and union representatives.

The PIG members are professors, independent researchers, recognised government dignitaries and other respected professionals, and they act as a mediator throughout the negotiation process trying to bridge the gap between employers and unions but ultimately possess certain powers that allow them to put a reasonable, considered level of minimum wage to vote.

It might now be important for the Cambodian government to distant itself a bit and have minimal involvement in the minimum-wage talks to avoid public criticism and the politicisation of the subject.

(I write as a Cambodian citizen and not in my capacity as the deputy secretary-general of GMAC.)



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