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Extra $5 ‘won’t woo workers’

Garment workers gather at the Ministry of Labour during a protest
Garment workers gather at the Ministry of Labour during a protest yesterday in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Extra $5 ‘won’t woo workers’

Striking garment unions balked yesterday at the Ministry of Labour’s announcement that it would raise garment workers’ minimum monthly wage to $100, well short of the $160 they demand.

Leaders of the six union groups representing striking workers generally saw the notification of a $5 bump to the ministry’s mandated $95 wage as a sign that the government is amenable to further raising wages, but said the amount is not enough to end the ongoing nationwide strike.

“The government’s decision to increase the minimum wage to $100 is a good sign for the workers,” Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said yesterday. “But they want more than $100.”

Signed by Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng, the letter distributed yesterday afternoon said the wage increase would go into effect next month. Garment industry workers now earn a minimum monthly wage of $80, including a $5 health bonus.

After the Labour Ministry’s Labour Advisory Committee last week landed on $95 for the garment sector’s 2014 minimum wage, union groups – including the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the Free Trade Union (FTU), the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) – walked off the job.

The ministry’s modest wage rise yesterday marked a distinct change of tone from Monday, when it threatened legal action against union leaders if the strike did not end by tomorrow. But the offer did little to persuade strikers to leave the picket line and return to workstations, CCU president Rong Chhun said.

“Increasing the minimum wage to only $100 does not fulfil the demands of workers and unions,” Chhun told the Post.

C.CAWDU vice president Kong Athit said strike demonstrations would halt temporarily today, but resume tomorrow, when workers will protest in front of their respective factories.

In raising the minimum wage offer at all, the Labour Ministry has sent the wrong message to strikers and their unions, said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

“First of all, it came as a total surprise.… It undermines everything we’ve done before and is saying it’s OK to ignore the set rules and regulations [regarding strikes] and you’ll be rewarded,” Loo said. “Our perception is it will not solve the problem. In fact, it will make it worse.”

Along with garment workers, teachers will soon join the strike, said Chhun, who also serves as president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA). At CITA’s annual conference yesterday Chhun announced that teachers would also take their grievances to the streets beginning on January 6.

Demands from teachers, who do not have an established minimum wage and are not legally allowed to collectively bargain, include a minimum monthly salary of 1 million riel ($250), and the ability to bargain, Chhun said. Teachers, including some who are not CITA members, have already agreed to join, he added, without specifying how many will strike.

In a letter obtained by the Post hours after Chhun’s announcement, Ministry of Interior secretary of state Pol Lim warns Chhun – who the Labour Ministry said is facing legal action because CCU is not registered – that CITA’s charter does not permit it to engage in political activity.

“If the president of [CITA] still does not abide by the statute, the ministry will cancel the association’s name from the Interior Ministry’s list,” it says.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

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