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New agreement brokered on garment worker benefits

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Labour Minister Vong Soth speaks during a meeting at the Ministry of Labour yesterday to discuss enhanced benefits for garment factory workers in the Kingdom.

Employers, union representatives and government officials struck an agreement yesterday that will see increased benefits for garment workers, less than six months after strikes in support of an increased minimum wage rocked the Kingdom’s highest-exporting sector.

Yesterday’s meeting of the Labour Advisory Committee – a body composed of union leaders, government officials and industry representatives – follows bilateral negotiations last month between unionists and employers. At issue were overtime meal allowances, monthly attendance bonuses and seniority bonuses.

The Ministry of Labour had given the parties a deadline of this month to come to an agreement before the issue moved to the LAC.

“I could not wait for the negotiations of both parties because I listened to their negotiations for three months already,” Labour Minister Vong Soth said. “Today I decided on four points: 2000 riels (US$0.50) for overtime meal allowance, a $1 seniority bonus up to year 11 [for each year of work at a factory], $7 for the monthly attendance incentive, and all this will take effect as of March 1.”

The seniority bonus will be available to workers who have worked more than one year at a factory and will increase each year up to the 11th, so that workers in their second year of work receive a two-dollar monthly bonus, those in their fifth year receive five dollars, and so on.

Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union president Ath Thorn, whose organisation was at the centre of last year’s strikes, said yesterday that he had voted against the proposals, arguing for a $9 monthly attendance incentive and a starting point of $3 for seniority bonuses.

“This time, we will agree to accept this for the workers, but we will still keep up our demands,” he said, adding that his union would not renew its calls for strikes in the aftermath of the decision.

“We will not appeal to do a strike this time because we can negotiate again at the end of this year or next year, and we think this is suitable for us to accept,” he said. “I will do a protest to demand increased bonuses again when the economic situation affects workers and leaves them worse off.”

The meal allowance, which can be replaced by a free meal, marks an increase from the previous total of 1000 riels, said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. The attendance bonus has increased from a previous total of $5, while the seniority bonus had been capped at five years.

Loo said that while the parties could not come to an agreement on their own during meetings last month, he believed yesterday’s decision had struck an appropriate medium between the two sides.

In September, thousands of garment workers took to the streets to protest a July LAC decision increasing the minimum wage by $5 to $61 per month, a figure they said was inadequate. A number of employers subsequently filed legal complaints in connection with the strikes, and union leaders claim that hundreds of workers have since been unlawfully barred from their jobs.

Loo said that workers “would have started to enjoy these benefits a lot earlier if there was no strike in September”, and that ill will remained in the sector following last year’s work stoppages in spite of the new agreement.
“I look at it as a separate issue, and the events last year would forever be a burning scar, and there’s nothing that’s going to wipe that clean,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE

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