Union leaders yesterday said that despite having held strikes calling for a doubling of the minimum wage that were supported and encouraged by the country’s opposition party, they did not feel betrayed that the wage hike was taking a backseat in political negotiations.
Following a government announcement on December 24 that lifted the minimum wage from $80 to $95, a number of unions called a general strike asking for $160 that was immediately backed by the opposition, which quickly began urging workers to join their rallies.
On January 1, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said at Freedom Park: “I have no plan to meet with anybody from the [Cambodian People’s Party]. Our priority is to help factory workers get an increase of the minimum monthly wage to $160”. The next day, government forces began a brutal crackdown on striking garment workers that by January 3 had left at least four dead.
It has since emerged that the Cambodia National Rescue Party began backroom negotiations with the CPP soon after, exchanging proposals which, according to sources close to the talks, did not list the minimum wage hike as a condition.
Rainsy said yesterday the wage hike was not “the essential element” of talks and fit alongside long-term goals including an end to economic land concessions and deforestation.
“You have to be consistent and single out one main point, which is either investigation of the past election or holding of new election,” he said. “When we move close to an agreement, or when implementing the agreement, or when laying the grounds for our work in the parliament, those [other] issues will come to the forefront.”
It appears the unions that led the strikes feel the same way.
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), said she understood that the wage hike may need to take a back seat while a political agreement is hammered out.
“I think that he [Rainsy] did not talk about the workers’ wage in [negotiations] … because he thinks about our nation as the first priority, and then he will turn to pay attention to the workers,” she said.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, agreed.
“Everything will be solved if the political issue is solved, like the wage of the workers and the salary of the teachers. [They] will get what they demand when the CNRP wins.”
But Choun Mom Thol, president of the CPP-aligned Cambodian Union Federation, said the CNRP had used garment workers for political gain.
“He [Sam Rainsy] just uses the workers to topple Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen. He never does it for the workers’ benefit. The workers are cheated by the CNRP leaders.… He only talks about [them] at Freedom Park,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he pushed for all sides to support the proposed wage hike.
“During the strike, [Rainsy] said he supported the workers’ demand, but now doesn’t put it as a [point] for negotiation, [so] maybe it is not a priority for them,” he said. “[But] we are not disappointed by that, because we are not involved much with the CNRP.”