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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strike strategy shifts

Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun leads a march along Sisowath Quay on Tuesday demanding 21 detainees be released and higher wages in the garment industry.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun leads a march along Sisowath Quay on Tuesday demanding 21 detainees be released and higher wages in the garment industry. Heng Chivoan

Strike strategy shifts

In the wake of a Tuesday court decision to deny bail to 21 detainees arrested at demonstrations supporting a nationwide garment worker strike, union groups yesterday agreed to reignite the strike, but to dial back their tactics.

On sheets of drawing board paper, leaders of nine union groups mapped out their timeline for the strike, which will not begin until the middle of next month and will call for workers to remain home for the strike’s duration, rather than participate in demonstrations.

“We will prepare and distribute letters to workers, so that all will know and understand the purpose of this strategy,” Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said at the meeting.

The previous strike lasted from December 24 until January 3, and only included garment sector workers, but union leaders said they will now appeal to workers in all industries to participate.

Labour representatives today today are to begin distributing to government officials and workers a letter detailing their plan to boycott overtime work at factories from February 24 to February 28; hold a public forum on March 8; and finally stage a stay-home strike from March 12 until March 19. Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon, who heads a committee to investigate minimum wages, is to be an invitee to the forum.

If government officials do not free the 21 detainees, agree to a $160 minimum wage in the Kingdom’s garment and shoe industries, and comply with five other demands, the strike will continue indefinitely, Chhun said.

The timeline both gives the government time to mull over and negotiate the unions’ seven points and gives the unions time to recruit workers to participate in the strike, said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU).

“I think now, we have a month for the government to consider [our points],” Thorn said in a phone interview after the meeting, adding that the delayed strike will also provide time for international brands to apply pressure on the government, if they are willing.

In addition, the lack of public demonstrations will make it difficult for authorities to quash the strike, as they did early last month, when military and other personnel beat and opened fire on people at demonstrations supporting the strike – killing at least four and injuring dozens – said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center.

“I’m so excited, and so happy that the people are starting to think of the strategy of noncooperation,” Tola said after the meeting was dismissed. “It’s very hard for the government, for the troops to crack down on people just staying in their homes.”

But the minimum wage for 2014 cannot be changed, since the Ministry of Labour already set it at $100 per month in December, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said yesterday.

The monthly wage hike from the current $80 (which includes a $5 health bonus) is scheduled to go into effect later this year.

The ministry has opened the door to unions for future wage negotiations, but workers may strike, as long as they do not break laws, Sour said.

“As long as they comply with the law, they can do what they want,” Sour said.

The threat of workers refusing to attend work will likely have no effect on the attitudes of garment- and shoe-factory owners toward the minimum wage issue, said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

“There will be no wage negotiation until the rest of the year,” Loo said. “If the government installs a new minimum wage, we will comply.”

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