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‘Historic’ deal for workers

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Workers called on Walmart and H&M last week to help resolve their outstanding wage issue. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Labour-rights groups are lauding a “historic” deal that will result in about $200,000 in wages and benefits being paid to workers who were stranded when the Kingsland Garment factory in Phnom Penh closed unannounced in December.

In a meeting on Friday that took place as more than 80 workers continued a hunger strike, Saramax, which supplies retail giant Walmart, agreed to pay about 200 workers $100,000, and New Archid, which supplies Swedish brand H&M, agreed to put forward $45,000.

A government-sanctioned auction of the company’s assets is expected to raise about $60,000, which will also go towards settling the outstanding payments.

“When we heard the news, we all shouted. We were so happy,” worker Or Sokuong, who was among a group on strike outside Kingsland’s locked gates on Friday, said.

“We have power again knowing  we will get our salary and benefits after working here so many years.”

Workers would remain outside    the factory, which is owned by a Hong Kong-based company, until the money was in their hands, just in case “something changes”, Sok-uong said.

Protests began at the factory, in Meanchey district, after bosses    fled in late December, owing wages, seniority benefits — some accrued over nealry 20 years — and severance pay.

Friday’s meeting, chaired by the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) at the International Labour Organization’s office, included representatives from H&M, Walmart, Saramax, New Archid, the Cambodian Legal Education Center (CLEC) and three government ministries.

“It’s an enormous moment in Cambodia’s labour history, brands sitting down with the poorest workers,” ACILS country manager Dave Welsh said on Friday.

“The $200,000 has been secured and a committee will be established . . . to distribute this money.”

That committee would include ACILS, ILO and CLEC representatives, and would assess claims for payment, he said, adding that the money would be distributed within two weeks.

The Kingsland resolution and the government’s decision to pay out more than 7,000 workers at the bankrupt Yung Wah I and II factories in Takhmao town last month were positive results for the employees involved, but underscored the need for an insurance scheme to be introduced to protect other workers rendered jobless after factory closures, Welsh said.

“[The Kingsland resolution] was extra-judicial. The strict legal route wasn’t getting us anywhere. It’s historic, but it’s not an ideal way to go forward.

“New Archid and Salamax have put up the money – it’s not ideal; brands have a heavy moral responsibility.”  

Sing Mon, a member of a strike committee at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said all stakeholders in the garment sector should seek to find a solution for stranded workers in order to avoid lengthy protests.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said the fact that H&M and Walmart representatives had attended the meeting and intervened in the matter was “historic” and an important step towards improvement.

“It’s never happened before where Walmart are helping find a solution like this,” he said.

Tola called the Kingsland resolution a great success – one he attributed wholly to the workers’ determination and resolve – but said he would consider the case resolved completely only when the workers had been paid in full.

“The full pay is supposed to be more than $200,000,” he said, adding that CLEC had a list of 161 workers, but believed more than 200 worked in the factory. “We are still in the process of calculations. If the promised money is enough, it will be great. If the amount of workers is higher, it may not be enough.”

Contrary to workers’ belief that Kingsland bosses had fled the country, Tola said he believed one of them was still running a business in Cambodia.

Throughout the course of their protesting, the garment workers, mostly women, blocked National Road 2, slept outside the factory gates – so bosses could not return for a midnight machinery raid – and marched on the US and Swedish embassies and H&M’s Phnom Penh office.

Sok Leng, a representative of the workers who attended Friday’s meeting, said another meeting would be held on March 11 to establish how much each worker must be paid.

“Now we are happy 70 per cent, but not completely because we still do not have our salary,” she said. “But at least we have a solution after protesting more than two months.”

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia did not attend the meeting.

A representative from New Archid, who gave his name only as Mr Huang, would not give details on why his company agreed to pay workers.

“It is not convenient to say the reasons for the compensation,” he said.

Representatives of Walmart, H&M and Saramax could not be reached yesterday. 

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANSON CHEONG

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