Ahead of today’s Ministry of Labour announcement of a minimum wage increase for Cambodia’s apparel sector, opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday urged striking workers in Svay Rieng province to hold out until their monthly salary is raised to $160.
“[Garment] workers should not return to work until the government raises their minimum wage to $160,” Rainsy said in Bavet town to thousands of workers from Svay Rieng’s Manhattan and Tay Seng special economic zones. “We have to be together, I support all of you until you reach success, and I’ll be with you and protect you all.”
Rainsy’s address to workers including Nuth Sakhorn, who was shot by former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith in the same precinct last year, came after a lap of the factories that at one point included breaking down a razor-wire barricade.
A Labour Ministry working group comprising ministry officials, labour union representatives and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) last week presented three schemes for the government to increase minimum monthly wages for garment and shoe factories – which now stands at $80, including a $5 health bonus – by 2018.
Ministry officials are expected to decide whether to approach the goal by raising minimum salaries by $16 each year, upping pay annually for five years based on variables such as the economy and inflation or immediately hiking the minimum wage to $160 next year.
One day after the working group reported its conclusions last week, GMAC sent a letter to Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng saying it would agree to raise minimum wages by $10 each year for the next five, reaching $130 by 2018.
Anticipating the Labour Ministry’s announcement today, some union leaders called for immediate strikes if the ministry opts for anything other than the immediate hike, while others favoured a more nuanced approach.
Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance Trade Union (CATU), yesterday joined Rainsy in encouraging workers who began striking there last week to return only when the government meets their minimum salary demand.
“Workers will protest until they get $160,” Saphorn said.
Only three or four of the approximately 40 factories across the two Svay Rieng economic zones are now operational, since about 30,000 workers walked off the job last week demanding the immediate hike, said Has Bunthy, director of Svay Rieng provincial Labour Department.
Bunthy added that the number of strikers has fluctuated, spiking yesterday with Rainsy’s appearance.
Taking a less definitive stance, Kong Athit, vice-president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said if the Labour Ministry does not announce a wage hike for next year, his union will try to meet with ministry officials to make their case before the year’s end. If they are not heard, Athit said, C.CAWDU will begin campaigning to demand the raise in January.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), yesterday said his coalition of about 90,000 people across seven unions will lead unions across the country in a mass strike today unless the Labour Ministry announces the immediate wage boost.
“As soon as possible, we will begin printing thousands of letters to distribute to the workers, asking them to join the mass protest with us,” Chhun said. “I do this for the benefit of the [apparel] workers, not for myself.”
After hearing of Chhun’s demand, Sat Samoth, undersecretary of state at the Labour Ministry, said he agreed that apparel workers should earn a minimum of $160 per month, but Chhun should take his demands up with GMAC.
“The decision does not depend on me or the ministry,” Samoth said. “We really want the workers to get a higher wage, but the money is not with us; the money is in the employers’ pockets.”
GMAC secretary general Ken Loo yesterday recognised the money ultimately comes out of the factories, but noted that the minimum wage decision is in the government’s hands.
“[The government] needs to take the lead on minimum wages . . . it is something mandated by the law and guaranteed by the government,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL