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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Workers say unions give them strength

Workers say unions give them strength

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worker.jpg

At the end of their day, workers leave the factory for home on a remorque.

A

lthough some garment workers are paid relatively decent wages, others must work

overtime to survive. That is the word from workers the Post talked to outside Phnom

Penh's garment factory gates at the end of a recent work day.

Over 85 percent of Cambodia's 270,000 garment workers are women, and this was apparent

as they streamed from the many factories that line Route 2.

Ngun Naren, 22, left her home province of Kampong Cham four years ago to work at

Tack Fat Garment (Cambodia) Ltd in Sangkat Chak Angre Leu, Meanchey district. She

used to earn just $45 a month at the factory, but thanks to stronger enforcement

of labor laws and random factory checks by monitoring bodies, working conditions

had greatly improved, she said.

She now earns between $50 and $100 depending on how many pairs of trousers she produces.

This compares to a national average of $70 a month, reflecting increased productivity,

according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations body aimed

at improving working conditions in developing countries.

Stronger unions meant workers had more power to negotiate, Naren said.

"Now the boss of the garment factory doesn't seem to put as much pressure on

employees as before [the labor laws were enforced]," she said.

"Sometimes employers try to force us to work overtime, but if we do not want

to, we walk out. Then the employer just glares at us. He cannot do anything else."

Naren pays $5 a month for a room in a flat shared with two friends. Like many fellow

workers, Naren sends part of her pay packet home.

"Every month I send between $20 and $30 to my parents in the province,"

she said.

Despite having worked in the garment industry for five years, Sok Srey Neang, 25,

from Koh Kong province, earns only the minimum $45 a month at her factory in Chak

Angre Leu. It is not enough to make life worth living, she said.

"I have never sent any money to my family in the province," she said. "I

do not earn enough to pay bills and I often have to ask my parents to send me money."

To get by, Srey Neang works overtime three days a week, clocking up grueling 12-hour

days for an extra $15 a month. Though her overtime is voluntary, the ILO says forced

overtime and excessively long shifts are still commonplace in some factories.

Ol Sreyneng, from Prey Veng, faces a similar struggle. After three years working

in a garment factory in Mean Chey district, she lives from hand to mouth.

"If I do not work overtime, I would not have rice to eat," she said.

Seng Sophat, representative to the Khmer Youth Union at GDM Co Ltd in Dangkor district,

said the garment workers' lot is improving. Her factory owner had followed labor

laws for almost a year, but he kept gangsters on the factory floor to keep employees

in line, she said.

Mean Meng, 31, is one of the industry's male minority. He came from Kampong Cham

in 2000. Although he makes only $50 a month, his savings help him support a wife

and child in their rented house close to the factory site.

Speaking at a discussion on "Cambodia's Garment Industry After the End of the

Quota System" in March, National Assembly ninth commission chairman Ky Lum Ang

said between 70 and 80 percent of females aged 16 to 20 come to Phnom Penh or other

cities to join the garment industry.

"They can relieve some responsibility from the family," he said. "Their

parents stop worrying about them and having to spend money on them, and they also

get an average of $30 a month from their daughter."

ILO chief technical adviser Ros Harvey said the post-quota Cambodian garment industry

was looking "pretty positive."

"Employment rates are on the rise, exports are on the rise, but the value of

prices is not keeping up," she said. "In 2005, the average price of exports

to the US fell by 10 percent and to Europe 3.3 percent. Inevitably, this is putting

a squeeze on the industry, which flows through to the factory and potentially to

workers."

Harvey named waste reduction and increasing capacity as ways of improving productivity

without affecting workers' wages.

In the five years the ILO has been operating in Cambodia, factory conditions had

"steadily improved" but there were still problems, Harvey said.

She said there was a higher level of violation of basic labor laws for temporary

and casual workers, employers were not actively engaged in occupational safety and

health measures, and excessive overtime was common.

"[Overtime] is voluntary, but because wages are not high, they need it to make

ends meet. A large part of garment workers' incomes goes to family, and that comes

from overtime revenue."

Through union organization and collective bargaining with management, garment industry

workers had more power over their working conditions than ever before.

"The Cambodian garment industry has one of the highest unionization rates in

the world," she said. "Cooperation between workers and management on dealing

with problems as they inevitably rise...is the basis to improving labor standards

and quality over time."

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