Major clothing-company representatives told high-ranking Cambodian officials yesterday that they would be willing to adjust their pricing structure to facilitate a minimum-wage hike, according to a member of a global union who was present for talks in Phnom Penh.
They also said that violent crackdowns on demonstrations and the ongoing detention of workers and unionists are affecting their image, according to Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union.
“They talked about the increasing pressure from consumers, so the image is very important,” Raina said outside the room in the Peace Palace where he and representatives from four major brands aired their concerns. “Cambodia’s image got a bad hit in January when … workers were killed and many were arrested and injured.”
Yesterday’s meeting came ahead of a scheduled verdict on Friday in the case against 23 people arrested in early-January demonstrations, and after 17 union members were arrested while participating in strikes this month. Leaders of eight local labour unions – who were not invited to the roundtable discussion – released a statement yesterday demanding the release of the nine union members still being detained for the May protests in Kandal and Kampong Speu provinces.
After the meeting, Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour said government officials had told the brands that enforcing Cambodian law is obligatory.
“We clearly explained to the international buyer representatives that the rule of law must be complied with in Cambodia,” said Sour, who named Puma, H&M, Gap Inc and Levi Strauss as brands that had representatives in the meeting. “The union [members] were charged by a judge, not because they participated in freedom of association, but they violated other laws.”
Brand officials refused to speak with reporters after the meeting, saying they would later release a joint statement. As of 10pm last night, the statement had not been distributed.
Sour said the company officials misunderstood the definition of minimum wage in the Kingdom.
“In our law mentioning minimum wage, we are not talking about a fair wage, we are not talking about a living wage,” Sour said.
Another major concern brought up by brands and IndustriALL in the meeting was the government’s failure to make good on past agreements, Raina said.
A strike-ending agreement in December between SL Garment Processing and the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) – which represents a majority of SL employees – included a stipulation that all court cases related to the strike be withdrawn.
The verdict for two teens arrested in connection with a November 12 demonstration at SL Garment in Stung Meanchey – where stray police bullets killed one woman – is expected on Friday. In addition, C.CAWDU president Ath Thorn is currently out on bail after being charged with incitement – a case stemming from an incident that allegedly occurred during that strike.
“You can’t have this spirit of mutual trust and still have these court cases,” Raina said.
IndustriALL will meet with unions and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia today. Raina accused GMAC of being antagonistic towards unions rather than working with them.
Ken Loo, whom Raina named as particularly hostile towards unions, disagreed with the portrayal.
“We have always been working with unions, the majority of unions,” Loo said. “[But] if they refuse to respect the law, I don’t know what we can do.”