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Garment workers shout slogans during the launch of a campaign at Veng Sreng Boulevard
Garment workers shout slogans during the launch of a campaign at Veng Sreng Boulevard yesterday to demand higher minimum wages in their industry. Hong Menea

A brand new strategy

Metres away from where military authorities fatally fired automatic weapons at demonstrators on Veng Sreng Boulevard during a nationwide strike in January, some 500 garment workers gathered at Canadia Industrial Park yesterday, calling out the clothing brands that unions say must ensure workers a living wage.

“Zara starves Cambodian workers,” read one banner held by the group of mostly young women in the one-hour mini-march on industrial park grounds. “C&A starves Cambodian workers,” read another.

Most marching behind the banners wore T-shirts or stickers reading “THE BUYER MUST PROVIDE BASIC WAGE $177” below logos of brands including H&M, Adidas and Gap.

Global labour demonstration

In the aftermath of the Ministry of Labour’s decision in December to raise the minimum monthly wage to $100 – $60 less than what unions wanted – workers railed against the government and factories. But this time around, the campaign has shifted to a decidedly different target: the brands.

“[International brands] cannot keep saying they are not involved in wage setting … they are the ones with the profit,” Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said after the lunchtime Canadia gathering. “They have to make sure there is some money out of the profit to guarantee workers get at least $177; the profit is out of their pocket, [so] who is responsible?”

Events organised by garment unions at about 300 factories yesterday kicked off an industry-wide campaign for a minimum monthly wage of $177 next year – though some union leaders have said they would accept as little as $150.

The $177 figure comes from a Labour Ministry study that found garment workers spend an average of $155 to $177.50 per month. While unions and advocates say this constitutes a living wage, Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factories, said it only reflects how much workers in the study sample earned. The study shows the amount spent on personal necessities to be about $95, Loo said.

With the final decision by the Labour Ministry’s Labour Advisory Committee (LAC) on 2015’s minimum wage in Cambodia’s garment sector little more than a month away, C.CAWDU president Ath Thorn said that unions will focus more on petitions and calls for negotiation than public demonstrations.

“We don’t want to make trouble,” Thorn said in an interview at Canadia yesterday.

“We will send letters to all the necessary embassies … and we will also send [letters] to international brands,” he said.

If a wage decision amenable to unions is not reached by October 12, unions will hold a “mass gathering” at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, Thorn said. The LAC has established that it will finalise next year’s minimum wage by October’s end and implement it at the beginning of January.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Activists in Australia protest in front of an H&M clothing store yesterday as part of an organised international event calling for raising the minimum wage of Cambodian garment workers
Activists in Australia protest in front of a H&M clothing store yesterday as part of an organised international event calling for the minimum wage of Cambodian garment workers to be increased. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Pointing to international brands as the ones best equipped to solve years-long wage disputes in Cambodia’s garment industry marks a positive step for unions, said Joel Preston, a consultant with the Community Legal Education Center.

“Workers are becoming more aware of the social responsibility the brands have,” he said yesterday. “There’s no reason why the brands can’t increase wages tomorrow.”

Spokespeople contacted by the Post from Gap Inc, H&M and Adidas said by email that their brands support a living wage for workers at their supplier factories, and they have been in contact with the government, local NGOs and labour leaders. They also said that setting a minimum wage is a government decision that is out of their hands.

At a conference at the InterContinental hotel attended by officials from the government, GMAC and unions, Sandra D’Amico, vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, warned against alienating brands. Speaking at the forum, D’Amico said orders at 169 garment factories have reduced by an average of 40 per cent, though she did not specify a time frame for the drop.

“Workers’ total take-home income has not left workers in poverty.… There is overtime; there are incentives,” D’Amico said. “Today, we face an economic situation of other countries becoming more attractive than Cambodia.”

But Cambodian workers found global support yesterday, with North American labour union Workers United, SEIU and global union IndustriALL organising protests.

Speaking from the US, where it was still early on Wednesday morning, Jeff Hermanson of SEIU said he expected protests in front of stores in 30 cities across the US and Canada. In an email last night, IndustriALL noted “actions” being taken in front of stores in Korea, Australia, Switzerland and Belgium.

“The money is in the pocket of the buyers,” Loo of GMAC said. “If we were paid more, we would pay more to the workers.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY AND CHHAY CHANNYDA

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