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Walkout at wage talks

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Garment factory workers hold banners as they chant during a protest near Veng Sreng Boulevard yesterday on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where they called for brands to pay a living wage. Heng Chivoan

Walkout at wage talks

Tripartite talks over next year’s minimum wage for the garment sector came to a tense conclusion last night, as four independent unions walked out before a secret ballot was held to vote on a figure to submit to the government’s wage-fixing Labour Advisory Committee.

The boycott meant that the highest number of votes from the 48-member working group – which counts 16 members each for the government, union and employer sides – went to the employer’s $133 figure, which garnered 16 votes, while the government recommendation of $135 received 15 votes and the unions’ targeted $160 received only 13 votes. The current minimum wage stands at $128.

However, all three figures will be presented to the Labour Advisory Committee today for consideration as it attempts to determine next year’s final minimum wage, according to a government paper released after the meeting.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he walked out because the result was predetermined, largely due to the influence of pro-government unions.

“We are sure some unions are favourable to the Cambodian government,” he said. “They are not working in workers’ interests.”

The other three unions that walked out were the Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions, Collective Union of Movement of Workers and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia.

Employers condemned the walkout as “irresponsible” and damaging to the tripartite process. “It’s extremely disrespectful to the [LAC],” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Garment factory workers protest near Veng Sreng Boulevard yesterday morning in Phnom Penh, demanding brands pay a living wage. Heng Chivoan

“On Monday, we spent a good two hours [with the unions] going through the internal rules, hashing it out. I didn’t hear any objections then.”

One independent union also expressed consternation at the move, saying it resulted in employers and the government gaining more votes.

“Four union leaders walked out before the vote while only 12 unions voted, but we are surprised that we got 13 votes, so I think that one vote is from government,” said Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union Coalition.

“I regret seeing them leave while thousands of workers are waiting to see a good result and expecting to see the higher wage we are demanding for them, so we are sorry to see it.”

However, William Conklin, country director of the US-based Solidarity Center, said the process of the minimum wage talks was largely “scripted” anyway, since it was the government alone which ultimately decides on a figure.

He added that the government’s decision to set the wage before the Pchum Ben holidays showed the government cared more about “cooling off any emotions” than reaching a genuine consensus.

During the same process last year, the government and employers’ sides tied for the most votes, with both their numbers – and not the unions’ – being forwarded to the LAC.

The LAC then decided on its own figure, which was subsequently upped by Hun Sen, creating an outcry from both unions and employers, although mass strikes were avoided.

A show of force from unions did occur yesterday, when thousands of workers from 60 factories stood in front of their workplaces before noon to push for a living wage as part of the International Decent Work Day, according to the Cambodian Labor Confederation, a coalition of independent unions.

The gatherings had a particular emphasis on pressuring foreign brands, with workers brandishing posters declaring “Brands must provide a living wage for workers!” and “End corporate greed!”

“We did not create problems or affect public order. We just held posters and stood in front of factories,” said Preap Munysovann, secretary general for the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

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