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Factory worker wages to be re-examined

Factory worker wages to be re-examined

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Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, speaks to garment workers during a protest calling for higher wages at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, January 2013. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Amid threats of another mass strike in the thriving garment sector, the Ministry of Social Affairs has called a meeting with the industry’s leading players to discuss union demands for a $150-per-month minimum wage, a letter obtained yesterday reveals.

At the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the letter, dated Monday and signed by Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, invites the Labour Advisory Committee, factory owners and unions to attend the meeting, but does not specify when it will be held.

“Please, all unions, workers and employers, keep working as normal and wait to see the result of these discussions,” the letter says.

News of the meeting came two days after Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun led a 300-strong protest in the capital, in which he threatened widespread industrial action if the minimum wage of $61 was not increased to $150 per month.

Chhun, who has predicted conditions for garment workers would improve in the lead-up to July’s national election, welcomed the announcement.

“This is a good sign for workers that the government is responding to their protests, but we need this meeting quickly,” he said.

“Those who attend the meeting must open their eyes to see that the minimum wage for workers in neighbouring countries is between $170 and $200 – the wage we’re asking for is still lower.”

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party has promised to raise the minimum wage to $150 per month in the garment sector – which has a quarterly export value of more than $1 billion – if it wins the election.

Yim Serey Vathanak, national coordinator of an International Labour Organisation trade unions project, told the Post recently he believed $150 was realistic.

“With the wages, we still have a lot of room,” he said, adding that workers in Vietnam were making at least $160 per month and workers in Thailand more than $200.

“We should look at different factors about how it can be increased and look at the stakeholders who can do this,” he said.

“There is room for employers to raise the wage,” Serey Vathanak said. “I don’t think an increase to that of wages in other countries will cause a problem.”

The US – which collects hundreds of millions of dollars in import tariffs as a result of its people buying the most garments from Cambodia – also had “strong leverage” for a wage increase, he added.

Dr Sanchita Saxena, associate director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies, said these “extremely high tariffs” – at a rate of more than 15 per cent – were squeezing Cambodia’s garment industry.

For conditions to improve in factories, the US should consider reducing tariffs, she said.

“[This] would certainly provide better incentives for investment in improvement,” Saxena said, adding that American-owned brands also needed to demand better conditions and invest in Cambodia and its garment industry.

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Mom Kunthear at [email protected]
 

Shane Worrell at [email protected]

 

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