Six major retail, footwear and garment industry associations whose members account for over 90 per cent of garment imports in the US and Canada have called on the Cambodian government, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) and unions to resume wage negotiations. The open letter, dated January 15, is addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen, GMAC general secretary Ken Loo and five of the unions at the centre of the ongoing dispute over the minimum monthly garment salary.
“Our industry is committed to ensuring that all the products that they produce, source and sell are manufactured under lawful and humane conditions,” the letter stated. In addition to urging an immediate resumption of talks, the signatories requested for the creation of a regularly-scheduled wage review mechanism, and call on those involved to “end all violence.”
“These actions will not only promote both the short and long-term health and stability of the Cambodian garment and footwear industries, but these actions will also enable the Cambodian garment and footwear industry to maintain the strong relationships it has with our member companies,” the letter goes on to say.
The six organizations behind the effort are the Retail Council of Canada, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the United States Fashion Industry Association, the Canadian Apparel Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and the National Retail Federation.
The letter comes almost a month after unions called a nationwide strike in response to the Labour Advisory Committee’s announcement on December 24 that garment sector wages would rise from $80 to $160 over five years, instead of taking effect immediately. The initial rise for 2014 was set at $95, but was raised to $100 after almost a week of demonstrations.
Anger from the arrests of strikers and activists on January 2 led to a deadly altercation the next day, when authorities responded to furious workers hurling rocks and molotov cocktails beside the Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh by shooting dead at least four.
Sat Samuth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said he had not seen the letter from retail groups, but said a return to negotiations was not a decision for the ministry.
“It’s not our responsibility now because the government has established a new committee, a national committee, for the minimum wage,” he said, referring to an ad hoc task force headed by deputy prime minister Keat Chhun, announced by the prime minister a week ago. Samuth was unaware when the committee would first convene.
The garment, retail and footwear associations’ call to resume negotiations is in “contradiction to the principles of democracy,” said GMAC general secretary Ken Loo.
“The six unions represent a minority and the majority of workers accept the position of the labour advisory committee,” Loo said.
Though the unions at the centre of the dispute claim to represent more than 200,000 of some 600,000 Cambodian garment workers, Loo questioned their large membership figures.
Organizers of the nationwide strike came together Wednesday at a forum in Phnom Penh, where they said that a peaceful walkout would resume if the government and employees did not return to the negotiating table. Using official documents, they argued that the government’s own research showed workers needed around $160 to live on now, instead of waiting until 2018.
The meeting came a day after Hun Sen said that wages could not reach $160, and that the current offer of $100 was better than what other countries were mandating in the region. Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said at the forum that as long as there is negotiation, unions could be flexible.
“We can soften our stance; we don’t just stick to $160,” he said.