Leaders of unions that declared a nationwide garment worker strike said the work stoppage and protests, which they temporarily suspended, will resume unless government officials renegotiate the industry’s minimum wage.
The announcement was their first since authorities cracked down on strike demonstrations on January 2 and opened fire on protesters near Canadia Industrial Park the following day, killing at least four.
Speaking at a forum, union heads appealed to the government to release 23 people arrested during demonstrations and to hold authorities accountable for the deadly shooting, in addition to entering into minimum wage negotiations with unions.
“We won’t suspend [the strike] too long; if there is no solution, we will re-declare a grand strike,” Rong Chhun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Unions, said at the forum. “We will prepare for [more] gatherings.”
The minimum wage for employees at garment and shoe factories now stands at $80 per month, which includes a $5 health bonus. The Ministry of Labour last month announced the minimum wage would climb to $95 in 2014, but later amended the decision, setting this year’s industry floor wage at $100.
Although the government formed a working group comprised of government officials, union representatives and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) before setting the minimum wage, the Labour Ministry seemed to ignore much of their findings, independent political analyst Kem Ley said in an interview after the press conference.
“They did not look at the data, the research finding,” Ley said. “They just called for a meeting among the Labour Advisory Committee and representatives of employers and the representatives of unions, and decided by voting.”
The working group found the living wage to be about $160. The Labour Ministry’s Labour Advisory Committee on December 24 decided to raise the minimum wage incrementally over five years, reaching $160 by 2018.
Although workers are demanding an immediate increase to $160, unions would be willing to negotiate their stance, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said at the forum.
“We do not want to confront with the government, but we want justice,” Thorn said. “We can soften our stance; we don’t need to stick to $160.”
Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour last week told the Post that the ministry has no plans to meet with unions to discuss the minimum wage, because the decision was already made.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last Friday ordered the formation of a committee to be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhun to re-examine the sector’s minimum wage, Labour Ministry under-secretary Sat Samoth said yesterday.
That the government is taking another look at the minimum wage at all appears promising, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center. But a prolonged period of investigation would be useless, he continued, since the previous working group already conducted that research.
Welsh added that a 100 per cent wage hike [from $80 to $160] is necessary due to the government’s lackadaisical approach towards raising wages in line with inflation since 2000.
“It should be seen as a corrective action,” Welsh said.