Discussions about salaries on the factory floor led worker Channa, 22, to begin feeling jealous of her male counterparts.
She learned, through talking with a number of co-workers, that the men working around her were doing the same amount of work as she was, but being paid more.
“Most of the men I work with get a higher income than the women,” Channa told the Post yesterday from her factory in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. “And men seem to easily get promoted ahead of women who have the same abilities. I don’t know the reason why, but it’s always been like that.”
Channa’s story is a common one.
According to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank, gender wage gaps of up to 40 per cent exist in Cambodia’s formal sectors – and equality remains a goal rather than an achievement.
Male legislators, officials and managers, for example, on average earn 29 per cent more than their female counterparts, while across all formal occupations, the gap is about 27 per cent, says Gender Equality in the Labor Market in Cambodia, a study produced in conjunction with the International Labour Organization.
In the armed forces, men and women are listed as earning similar amounts – but women make up a mere 13 per cent of defence and public administration employees, the report continues.
As the garment industry expanded between 1998 and 2008, women’s share of employment in goods and services industries increased from 44 per cent to 56 per cent – but, in total, women as a group earned on average only 71 per cent of what men did.
“Cambodia should amend its legislation to properly enact the concept of ‘equal remuneration for work of equal value’, which is relevant to reducing the wage gap,” the report says, adding that an independent minimum wage-setting process should be implemented.
One of the barriers to such a mechanism working, however, is that a higher percentage of women are finding themselves in “vulnerable employment” – self-employment or unpaid family work – which “typically offers fewer opportunities for decent work and social protection”.
Social pressures and gaps in education between girls and boys are also highlighted as contributing to the inequality.
Though gender relations are changing and some progress in labour equality being made, traditional attitudes towards women still affect quality in the labour market, the report continues.
This is demonstrated in agricultural settings – home to 80 per cent of the country’s population – where women make up more than half of the sector but are often the “poorest people in rural communities”.
“The starting point is that women farmers do not have an equal opportunity to acquire land or register it in their own names,” the report says, referring to socially accepted gender roles and a lack of knowledge of legal processes.
“Land ownership is important not only to women’s ability to earn income but also as a source of empowerment and autonomy within the household,” it continues.
Eng Sophorn, 48, a farmer in Prey Veng province’s Svay Anthor district, is in a situation the report would consider common. While her husband works as a teacher, she is responsible for growing rice crops that feed her family and are sold at market for income. She also has other domestic responsibilities.
“I have five hectares of rice fields,” she said. “Most women work at home and have a lot more responsibilities than if they just had a normal job.”
The report makes a number of recommendations on how to close the gender gap in the workforce, including that the government expand employment and decent work opportunities for women in the agriculture, industrial, manufacturing and services sectors, strengthen discrimination complaint mechanisms and involve women in strategy development.
“Women’s voices need to be heard on these issues, and women’s participation through trade unions and women’s collectives and organizations should be encouraged,” it says.
That’s something factory worker Channa, who says that few women are climbing up union ranks in her workplace, would welcome. “Most of the union leaders are male,” she said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said questions about gender equality in the workforce should be put to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Khim Chamroeun, secretary of state at the ministry, could not be reached during business hours yesterday. When reached later, she declined to comment, saying: “I will talk during work hours.”