On July 8, government officials, union leaders and workers’ representatives met on the campus of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training to decide upon the minimum wage for the garment industry.
After a discussion that lasted all morning, there was bitter disappointment about an outcome that revealed the government’s proposal of a mere US$5 per month increase had been settled upon, bringing the minimum wage up to just $61 per month, including living allowance.
For the more than 200 local union leaders that had gathered on the campus and lined the dusty streets outside the building to observe the meeting, the situation seemed hopeless. Eye-witnesses described the crowds as outraged as they spoke to the media about their dissatisfaction and as local affiliates were called in.
The unions’ demand of a minimum wage of $93 monthly was quite clearly never on the agenda for the pro-government members of the committee, who voted to keep the minimum wage unacceptably low.
According to research produced in 2009 by the Cambodian Institute of Development Study, the basic spending needs of garment factory workers cannot possibly be met on a monthly salary of less than $72. The study examines two scenarios regarding the minimum wage, based upon food expenses.
In the first, the estimated $1.06 spent daily on food, which is the National Institute of Statistics’ projected figure for a healthy calorie intake, brings the minimum wage by necessity to at least $71.99 per month. However, The NIS also acknowledge that in order to obtain quality food, it is necessary to spend $1.15 per day, which implies that the minimum wage should in fact be $74.85 per month.
The current salary unquestionably leads to considerable health deterioration and ensures most parents are incapable of paying their children’s school fees.
Moeun Tola, the head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, in his initial reaction described the meeting as a “show”, where “everything is already prepared, already set up, allowing the union to talk without any real cause. Most of the representatives from the government, such as Vorng Sot, the labour minister, and His Excellency Mean Sophea, the minister of commerce, just defended the government proposal without trying to better the workers’ situation”.
Moeun Tola went on to comment on the unfair voting procedures. The high proportion of government officials on the Labor Advisory Committee (14 in total), coupled with the seven members from the Employers Association, means that even if all seven of the union members opposed the meeting’s outcome, they would still be overruled by the pro-government majority.
Thus, Moeun Tola argues, “The result from the voting is not viable.”
He also expressed shock after the representatives from the Ministry of Commerce declared that workers should consider the high utility and transportation expenses in Cambodia, implying that the minimum wage is hard to increase due to other government costs.
The government has a responsibility to fix this, said Moeun Tola. They should work to lower these prices by cutting down on bureaucracies and eliminating unprofessional payments and corruption to enable a higher minimum wage. The utility and transport costs should not, he emphasised, be excused to reject the workers’ wage increase.
There are already plans under way to produce and disseminate pamphlets to encourage workers to organise themselves and prepare to strike.
The major obstacle for striking will undoubtedly be the constraints of the short-term contracts that the majority of workers are tied to. This enables employers not only to blacklist those who do protest by striking, but to refuse to renew their contracts after three months, leaving the prospect of unemployment after the strike exceedingly high, and making a strike something that these workers literally cannot afford to participate in.
Now more than ever, Cambodian workers are in need of international attention and support. This post-conflict country, with its soaring numbers of illiterate children and almost half of its inhabitants malnourished, depends upon the garment trade to keep its economy stable.
More than 90 percent of its export trade is produced from the garment industry. However, the money the workers in this sector receive is simply not enough to cover their daily costs, and with the government’s meager pay rise approved, it is increasingly likely that garment workers will be forced to find jobs in other sectors, which would cause havoc in the garment industry and pose a major threat to Cambodia’s national economic growth.
This setback in the struggle for a decent, reasonable salary appears to be the last straw for distraught Cambodians suffering severe poverty and working 48-hour weeks. The anger and desperation after the decision was announced was tangible, and the Cambodian Labor Confederation immediately summoned a meeting to discuss striking.
A strike of several thousand workers is now a near possibility, and predictions are that it would continue until they attain their demands. Such disruption would create a massive problem for the industry and have devastating consequences for Cambodia’s economy, reputation and ability to compete on a global scale. With only two months to appeal the decision, the urgency of the situation is undeniable, and the response of the workers to this result is critical.
Laura Emily Ismay Robson is a Briton working with the Community Legal Education Centre in Phnom Penh.