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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Garment workers strike as industry growth dips

Garment workers strike as industry growth dips

4Garments036.jpg
4Garments036.jpg

The Chinese owners of a Phnom Penh garment factory hired a gunman to disperse 700 striking workers outside the factory on February 7.

The strikers gathered outside the factory of Phnom Penh Garment City Co. Ltd as part of an ongoing protest over the cutting of their monthly food allowances, but they were dispersed after being menaced by the gunman. No shots were fired.

“Once the gangster left the workers reassembled,” said Kao Meng, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia representative at the factory.

“But the owners have no will to resolve the problem for the workers and have refused to reinstate money for the monthly food allowance.”

With workers at two of Phnom Penh’s garment factories entering their third and fourth weeks of strikes, Chea Mony, the president of FTUWKC, said that without serious improvements to corruption levels and the correct implementation of the law, the garment industry – an economic lifeline for the country – will disappear within three years. 

The union launched the strike on January 25 and forced the Phnom Penh Garment City factory, which produces Cowboy-brand jeans, trousers and shorts, to close on February 4.

Union representative Kao Meng told the Post that 700 of Phnom Penh Garment’s 800 workers will not return to work until the $6.38 monthly bonus, in place since 1998 but taken away after the factory changed hands in July 2007, is reinstated.

Earlier, the union contacted the Ministry of Labour, and one of its representatives met the factory employers and employees in an

effort to solve the dispute. Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labour, Oum Mean, said neither party would agree so the case had to be sent to the arbitration council.

“I think if both employees and employers respect the law, problems like these will not happen. The employees have the right to protest but I suggest that they do not disturb the social order,” Mean said.

Owners at the factory could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, a second ongoing strike, also overseen by the Ministry of Labour, was launched in mid January by the Coalition of Cambodia’s Apparel Workers Democratic Unions (CCAWDU) at the Chinese-owned Kingsland Garment (Cambodia) Ltd.

This strike is also continuing, with the factory forced to close after a majority of the 600 workers went on strike over the general state of working conditions and the dismissal of two CCAWDU member workers. 

The ministry wants to meet the employers and employees in both factories again, hoping to have both cases solved after Chinese New Year.

Cambodia’s deteriorating industrial relations come as the Kingdom grapples with external market pressures. For an industry that employs 350,000 people and accounts for over 80 percent of foreign exchange exports, the 46 percent drop in garment exports during 2007’s fourth quarter is of crucial significance to the country’s economic future.

Cambodia, directly affected by increasing regional competition from China and Vietnam, is also feeling the effects of the US economic slump. The US imports at least 70 percent of Cambodia’s garment exports.

While the Free Trade Union of Workers president, Mony, welcomed last month’s Phnom Penh-based third National Industrial Relations Conference focus on improving communication between employers and employees, he was “also pessimistic that what they discussed were very loose ideas.”

“It shows good intentions but no practical means for implementation,” he said.

During the day-long conference, which concentrated on collective bargaining agreements and union representation, discussions were also held about how to improve working conditions and productivity in the garment industry.

Speaking at the conference, senior labour administrator and industrial relations specialist for the International Labour Organization’s Bangkok sub regional office, Abhik Ghosh said, “The focus should be on finding common goals and areas of common interest and concern. Cooperation should be learned and practiced until it becomes a habit.”

Mony says this is easier said than done. “Collective bargaining agreements are a good idea but they are not going to be of any use until the judiciary system is fixed.”

On December 28, Mony wrote to the president of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia (GMAC), Van Sou Ieng to suggest talks about increasing garment factory workers’ salaries, which he believes have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. His request was refused.

However, GMAC Secretary General Ken Loo said, “We have always opened our doors to unions.”

Loo said minimum wages were regulated at the end of October 2006, increasing $5 per month from $45 to $50. “After their implementation on 1 January 2007 it was clear that new wages would not be established until 1 January 2010,” he said.

But the outlook for industrial relations and labour disputes is not all bleak. According to Acting Minister Othsman Hassan for the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, strikes in the garment industry fell from 86 in 2006 to 80 in 2007.

At New Island Clothing (Cambodia) Ltd, where the Free Trade Union of Workers is also present, general manager Adrian Ross said he cannot recall any industrial relation problems in the seven years since the factory opened.

“Being so close to the workers on a ground level means I know what works. I don’t think factory managers should have a problem with the unions if they’re doing nothing wrong,” he said.

Ross believes one of the reasons there have been no disputes at the factory, which employs 816 people, is that the middle management team is Cambodian.

This is unique in Cambodia, and Ross said the high level of mutual respect among his workers is one of the main reasons for success.

Tuomo Poutianen, chief technical advisor for Better Factories Cambodia, a division of the International Labour Organisation, said that 90 percent of Cambodian factory owners are foreigners, and while this brings a wonderful mix of cultures to the industry “there needs to be a move towards Cambodians in middle management jobs.”

He said there is a disparity in training programs and demand in Cambodia. “The government and GMAC need to create means for young Cambodians to learn skills needed for middle management in the garment industry.

“It is timely to start thinking about helping the next generation to train for jobs that are available,” he said.

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