TALK surrounding yesterday’s Labour Day predictably focused on familiar themes of workers’ rights. But in Cambodia’s case, concentrating on issues such as equality, conditions and the length of shifts in the workplace misses the point.
The main labour problem in Cambodia is that most people simply do not have a stable, well-paid job in the first place and despite strong economic growth there remain few signs the situation is improving. Although the International Labour Organisation found the unemployment rate to be less than 2 percent last year, this statistic hides the reality of Cambodia’s job market.
Of those that are employed, more than 80 percent are in vulnerable work, according to the ILO. This often means work in the informal sector where revenues are unstable, social protection non-existent and the chance to save money in the event of joblessness is usually low. In rural areas, agricultural work is barely above subsistence level.
Among youth, by far the largest demographic in the country, close to 15 percent were estimated to be unemployed in Cambodia by the end of last year, according to the ILO. Despite GDP growth of 5.5 percent in 2010, which is expected to climb by about 1 percentage point this year, Cambodia simply cannot create enough jobs for the growing numbers of young people entering the workforce. When jobs are hard to come by, labour rights begin to take a back seat – ultimately, people become increasingly desperate just to get paid.
On the flip side, although many foreign employers here note the improvement in education and the employability of candidates, still risk analysts and major investors cite a lack of skills as among the most pressing disadvantages associated with doing business in this country. For instance, the ILO said last year that still one quarter of the Kingdom’s workforce is illiterate.
Cambodia is therefore caught in a vicious cycle when it comes to the labour market. On average the workforce is still considered to be low-skilled, meaning employers will either shun the country altogether, bring in foreign employees at the management level or restrict business activities to those which can make a profit from low-skilled labour, such as garments. In such an environment, how do workers receive the necessary training and remuneration to elevate their job status?
Part of the solution in theory would be higher government spending on education and vocational training, but this year the state allocated just 9.3 percent of the budget to education, or $223 million. By contrast, neighbouring Thailand attributes roughly double this percentage of its state spending to education.
Workers’ rights represent an obvious goal for any well-functioning economy, but in practice it remains hard to raise conditions when jobs are lacking in quality or scarce altogether. Poor labour rights are therefore a symptom of underlying problems associated with the job market.