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A garment worker irons pieces of apparel at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district late last year.
A garment worker irons pieces of apparel at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district late last year. Vireak Mai

A tailored agreement

Following weeks of quarrelling, the Kingdom’s garment unions yesterday agreed to demand a monthly industry minimum wage of $168 – only to find themselves miles apart from employers who are refusing to consider an increase beyond the rate of inflation.

Leading up to ongoing tripartite minimum-wage talks slated to culminate in October, pro-government and independent unions debated between demanding $158 or $178 a month, with one league of independent unions even offering a target of $207 based on a survey of garment workers’ spending habits.

But yesterday, 14 unions settled on the $168 figure after more than an hour of internal discussion, according to a statement released after the meeting.

“Some of our unions used to demand different figures, such as $158, $166 and $178, but today we decided to take only one figure for negotiation with employers coordinated by the government,” said Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union Confederation.

However, employers have shown no indication they are ready to make significant concessions to labour. Employers have thus far only agreed to increase salaries by the rate of inflation, which, based on a current rate of 3.5 per cent and the current minimum wage of $128, amounts to slightly less than $4.50 a month.

Ken Loo, spokesman for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the union and government sides had failed so far to prove to employers that there was a solid economic rationale for an increase in the minimum wage.

“So far, their number has got no meaning,” Loo said.

Loo added that some of GMAC’s criteria, such as productivity, indicated the minimum wage should actually be decreased, adding that the unions’ $168 demand was “not workable”.

But Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said yesterday that the $168 figure was based in part on external economic factors.

“We are trying to take into consideration the issues of the economy, productivity, living standards, spending and also inflation in order to show them to the employers,” he said.

“We will keep demanding $168 as our figure.”

Despite the wide gulf separating workers and management, all sides yesterday said the process had gone relatively smoothly thus far, particularly compared to the street protests for higher wages that roiled the country in late 2013 and early 2014.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour told reporters that the negotiations were developing positively because all parties were “mature and respected each other”, adding that a final number would
be settled before the Pchum Ben holidays begin on October 11.

Sina of the CUMW also said the process was going well, and that he expected a positive result to be released by October 5.

“The employers just talked about inflation, but they did not say anything about the increase in the economy and profits or other things, although we tried to explain,” he said.

“I think employers will end up increasing by more than [just inflation], but we do not know how much.”

Not all union leaders are happy with the $168 demand, however, arguing that a higher number would have been closer to a living wage.

“This is just because [the unions] think it will be impossible to get $207,” said Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation. Although food-service workers are not currently included under the minimum wage, Mora said he was disappointed about the $168 figure, saying that it set a low bar for other non-garment workers hoping to gain their own minimum wage in the future.

“There were a lot of messages from the government, from the media and from the employers that a $207 demand was impossible.”

A secret ballot to decide the final number is slated for October, with results then sent to the government’s Labour Advisory Committee for approval.

Tripartite minimum wage talks for the garment industry collapsed last year, leading the government to ultimately mandate the current $128 rate, a move that angered both unions and employers at the time.

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