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Garment unions weigh protests

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Union leader Ath Thorn attends a minimum wage demonstration earlier this month on Phnom Penh's Veng Sreng Boulevard. Heng Chivoan

Garment unions weigh protests

Garment workers unions unhappy with next year’s recently announced $140 minimum wage for the sector will meet this week to determine whether or not to hold demonstrations to protest the disappointingly low figure.

The unions were pushing for $160 a month when the government announced the new wage on October 8, just before the Pchum Ben holidays.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he would meet with around six other union leaders on Wednesday to plan the unions’ next step.

“We will make our decision on that day,” he said.

Thorn said the result of the meeting depended on whether the majority of workers agreed to go on strike to demand a wage higher than $140. The current minimum wage for garment workers is $128.

“As far as I know, most of the workers are not satisfied with the new wage,” Thorn said.

Although strike-free, the negotiations leading up to the announcement of the new wage were occasionally turbulent, with independent unions like Thorn’s crying foul over the influence of pro-government unions.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said his union did not approve of the government’s increase either.

“It’s not just me that isn’t satisfied with the new wage, but also other unions,” he said.

But Sina said demonstrations would only be held if a push for buyers of Cambodian garments to support further wage increases was unsuccessful.

“I think demonstrations won’t happen soon because we will try to work with buyers first, and then we will think about our next step,” he said.

Sweden-based retailer H&M is the only major brand so far to publicly back the government’s minimum wage raise, although it said in a statement that it didn’t believe brands should determine any specifics, and did not elaborate on whether it would support further increases.

“This is an important step forward towards fair living wages,” the statement by H&M read.

In late 2013 and early 2014, Cambodia was rocked by unrest when thousands of garment workers took to the streets to demand a higher minimum wage, which then stood at $100.

Four garment workers were killed – with another presumed dead – in a government crackdown on a mass demonstration in January of 2014.

Further unrest was avoided after the government upped the wage rate to $128 in November of that year. Although unions threatened to go on strike again, no major protests took place as workers appeared satisfied with the 28 per cent increase in their salaries.

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