After high-level government officials met with major apparel brands and international labour unions yesterday, attendees and observers said they felt positive about the government’s sincerity in improving standards for Cambodia’s garment workers.
Minimum wage reform, trade union legislation and the status of 21 people detained since their arrests at demonstrations supporting a national garment worker strike last month were among topics discussed at the forum, said Stephen Benedict, director of trade union rights for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who attended.
“There was some indication of what the government intends to do over the coming period, and there was a commitment of continuing the discussions with the brands and the global unions,” Benedict said after the meeting.
Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon hosted the meeting, which was also attended by secretaries of state of several ministries, including the Ministry of Labour, Benedict said. Brands that sent representatives included C&A, Gap, Inditex, H&M and Puma, while international unions were represented by ITUC and IndustriALL.
Government officials agreed to meet with the group again by the end of May, according to a joint statement of 30 international brands and unions that last month sent a letter calling for the government to address human rights issues in the garment sector and requesting yesterday’s sit-down.
Attendees represented the interests of all 30 signatories to the January 17 letter sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office, the joint statement said.
When asked about the meeting, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour yesterday referred questions to Chhon, who could not be reached.
“Certainly, in recent memory, it’s hard to place when and where a similar meeting has taken place in Cambodia,” Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center, said. “The participants list alone suggests a level of seriousness … and a level of urgency.”
No comments were offered by the government when the topic of the 21 detainees – who have appealed their bail request to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal denied it last week – was mentioned, Benedict said. But they did raise their intentions to put in place a mechanism to better determine the garment industry’s minimum wage and to put a trade union law on the books.
The Ministry of Labour has already enlisted the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a technical adviser for minimum wage reform and the drafting of a union law, ILO national coordinator Tun Sophorn said.
Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union president Ath Thorn also saw the meeting as a sign the government is taking labour rights issues seriously.
“It’s possible that government, buyers and [international] trade unions can form a strategy to start a negotiation process [with local unions],” Thorn said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL DE CARTERET