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Union representatives chair a forum regarding a national minimum wage yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied
Union representatives chair a forum regarding a national minimum wage yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

As garment minimum wage talks begin, other sectors want in

As unions, employers and government officials met for the first time in the run-up to the annual battle over the garment industry’s minimum wage yesterday, another group of labour and advocacy groups were asking when they would be part of those discussions.

Meeting at the capital’s Sunway Hotel, union organisers from sectors as varied as construction, food services, tourism and manufacturing discussed a variety of approaches – from a flat minimum wage that would span all industries to a more measured sector-by-sector approach – to push on the national level.

William Conklin, country director for worker advocacy group Solidarity Center, said the meeting was driven by an increasing sense of urgency among non-garment sector unions, eager to stake out their positions on the minimum wage going forward.

“Because, the longer you wait, the harder it will get,” he said. “So, you are then trying to move, or slowly moving, towards a unified labour movement position on national minimum wage structures,” he said, while admitting there was no set formula for the process.

“It seemed like there was agreement that Cambodia should ratify [International Labour Organization] Convention 131,” he said, referring to a convention that mandates signatories establish a minimum wage system covering all groups of wage earners.

Vietnam currently has four minimum wages based on geographic areas, with increases mapped out over a five-year period, while both Thailand and Malaysia have their own national minimum wages.

Article 104 in Cambodia’s Labour Law stipulates that wages in the country “must be at least equal to the guaranteed minimum wage; that is, it must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity”.

While there have been no formal discussions on creating a national minimum wage in Cambodia, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour in February said a yet-to-be-drafted minimum wage law will look into expansion of the wage to other sectors, though offered no further details.

Yesterday, Sour said the ministry had focused on a minimum wage for the garment sector because it employed the highest number of workers. And setting a garment sector wage would organically push other sectors to match it.

“We have not ignored other sectors. There is the free market,” he said. “So when the garment and footwear sectors have wage increases, it will help other sectors, too.”

According to Sour, data from the National Social Security Fund showed that there were construction workers already getting paid more than garment workers.

Morm Rithy, president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation, said workers are waiting for the ministry to apply minimum wages to other sectors as well.

“From now until the middle of 2017, we will research a minimum wage for the tourist sector to present to the ministry,” he said. “If we give it more time, then employers will only have more time to exploit us on wages.”

The same sentiment was expressed by Sok Kin, head of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, who said the lack of research or data should not be the reason holding them back from getting a minimum wage.

Given the large number of Cambodian workers choosing to work in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, Moeun Tola, head of the workers group Central, said a national minimum wage could help stem the exodus.

“They want to stay in the country if wages are not too low and if they have good working conditions,” he said.

Across town yesterday, the Labour Advisory Committee had its first meeting, signalling the start of this year’s minimum wage discussions for the garment industry, which now stands at $140 a month.

Among the topics discussed at the meeting was the creation of a technical committee consisting 16 members each from the government, employers and unions, as well as which socio-economic factors will be used to decide next year’s wage.

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