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Getting on the same page

Garment workers rally in front of the Ministry of Labour
Garment workers rally in front of the Ministry of Labour in December last year during a protest demanding a minimum wage rise. Heng Chivoan

Getting on the same page

In what is shaping up to be the first of several pivotal garment wage talks, unions are to meet for the first time today to discuss the amount they should request for next year’s minimum wage – but labour leaders and observers say coming to a consensus will be difficult, if not impossible.

Up to 50 representatives of pro-government, pro-opposition, pro-factory and independent unions are scheduled to gather at the Green Palace Hotel in Phnom Penh at 8am. The event was organised by the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC) and several international labour organisations.

The meeting comes a week before an official two-day workshop of the Ministry of Labour’s Labour Advisory Committee (LAC). Floor wages at the Kingdom’s garment and shoe factories stand at $100 per month.

“The only question is how strong the unions can work together,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). “How can the unions maintain their solidarity?”

Following discussions this month, union leaders will meet with factory representatives in August, followed by a September forum at the Ministry of Labour that will include government officials. The LAC, comprising government officials, industry representatives and union representatives, is scheduled to set next year’s minimum wage in October, which will then go into effect on January 1.

Without divulging the lowest wage his organisation could accept, CLC president Ath Thorn said $160 per month is reasonable, but that the figure could go as low as the $140 range. But the wide variety of interests in play poses obstacles.

“The problem this year [is whether] it’s possible … for all unions to agree,” Thorn said.

Attitudes regarding what will be acceptable vary.

Next year’s figure must surpass the $160 unions have demanded in the past year, said Ken Chhenglang, acting president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC).

“It must be higher than $160, but less than $200,” Chhenglang said in an interview late last week. “We will not accept $160 anymore. That amount was appropriate for 2014.”

Chuon Mom Thol, president of the government-leaning Cambodian Union Federation and deputy director of the Labour Advisory Committee, said yesterday that he received an invitation to today’s meeting but will not attend. Any decisions reached at the meeting will not be recognised by the LAC, since the committee has organised its own two-day workshop for July 21 and 22, he added.

“If you want to be fruitful, you need to be [in compliance] with the LAC workers group,” Mom Thol said.

“If you take that outcome [from today’s meeting] and give it to me and ask me to submit it to the LAC, I won’t do it.”

Amid calls from unions and workers for $160, the LAC’s decision to set minimum monthly wages at $95, and Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng’s subsequent decision to raise that figure by $5, sparked nationwide strikes in December. The demonstrations ended in a bloody crackdown on January 3, when authorities shot dead at least four people.

Since that incident, which was followed in later months by the systematic firing of union leaders in factories and the arrest of strikers, Cambodia’s reputation as a haven for ethical factory workplaces has suffered, international labour rights workers have said.

While not a part of the garment industry’s minimum-wage discussion, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation president Sar Mora said it appears that garment union leaders may not be able to find an amount that all can agree upon.

“It’s hard to reach a common position,” Mora said. “I think with some unions, they’ve [reached] their position already, so they will not get in any common position.”

Mora also said he believes the LAC’s workshops are likely just a government guise of taking into account input from unions and workers. If officials were interested in the opinions of others, Mora wondered, why did they refuse renegotiation of this year’s industrial minimum wage?

“So far [the government has shown it] doesn’t really care about the unions’ concerns or the workers’ concerns,” Mora said. “With a lot of workers on the street and protesting and the government not caring, it’s really difficult for me to say that they are concerned with what labour leaders’ concerns are.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR

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