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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Union leaders call off general strike

Union leaders call off general strike

After an impromptu, high-stakes meeting held on July 29 between top labor-union leaders

and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), it was announced that

a general strike scheduled for July 3 would be postponed indefinitely.

Cambodia's top labor leader, Free Trade Union (FTU) President Chea Mony, told the

Post the resolution was the result of a conciliatory letter from Ken Loo, secretary

general of GMAC, which pledged to negotiate worker's demands for a higher minimum

wage.

A portion of the GMAC letter reads "...we acknowledge that minimum wage has

not changed for five years and now it is time to sit and consider seriously on this

issue. We agreed principally on the need of changing the minimum wage."

Among the demands listed by garment factory union leaders was an increase in the

garment workers' minimum salary of $45 a month to $80. The unions are also lobbying

for a reduction in the work week from 48 to 44 hours.

Loo's letter does include a caveat: despite the commitment to address the wage issue,

he said his association's leaders will be traveling to Washington and Geneva for

trade talks for the entire month of July and that negotiations could only begin after

their return.

"If they do not do what they promised, we will use our right to strike. For

now it is postponed," said Mony, whose FTU represents 70,000 garment workers

in 115 factories. "We issued an announcement to workers, members, leaders, directors

and deputy directors of unions throughout Cambodia that we will delay the strike

for a moment."

According to a senior labor official who attended the meeting, both sides left the

June 29 closed-door session unsure of the other's intent. It was only hours later

and after much deliberation that the mass work stoppage - what some have claimed

would have been Cambodia's first general strike - was called off.

"It was very positive, but the million-dollar question was still whether the

strike would proceed," the labor official told the Post. "Everyone was

playing it close to the vest."

The postponement came after Mony and Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Teachers'

Association, spearheaded an initiative to peacefully shut down the country's schools

and garment factories.

In the days ahead of the proposed strike the coalition's demands had been broadened

to include, among other things, a reduction in gasoline prices and the end to harassment

of union officials.

Mony said the strike was designed to show solidarity, highlight demands and raise

awareness.

"We want to be respected. No one respects us and no one knows what the working

conditions are like," he said. "We want to send information to the world

that the government won't solve problems with the workers and that inflation is getting

higher than the salaries. We want the international community to know that union

leaders get threatened and killed."

But Loo insists that a large-scale strike would have been no benefit to union members

or manufacturers. Garment manufacturing accounts for roughly 40 percent of the gross

domestic product and employs around 270,000 workers.

"Garment factories will always lose in the event of a strike," he said.

"We lose production and have disrupted production. The workers tend to lose

as well if the factories incur losses and have to close down. They also will not

be able to get wages for the period they are on strike. In addition, the buyers are

all very sensitive to such events as it brings a bad image for their brand as well

as late shipments.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith agreed that the strike would have been bad for

Cambodia's most lucrative industry.

"When [unions] go on strike, garment factories will move to Vietnam where they

never have strikes and they have cheap labor as well."

Despite the cancellation of the strike, possibly a minor victory for Cambodia's union

movement, concerns remain for its union leaders and advocates. The demands of Chhun

and the 7,000-member CITA, including an increase of teachers' salaries to $100 a

month, were not addressed.

"Students themselves have begun to acknowledge that their studies are not useful

for them," Chhun said. "The government does not care about teacher's salaries

and that's why teachers do not provide good knowledge. This must change."

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