Still agitated 20 minutes after the rally in front of SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd had dispersed yesterday, Choem Som Im held up seven fingers as she jerked her arms forward and spoke in an equally sharp tone.
“Seven dollars is not enough to travel to my hometown,” Som Im, a striking SL employee originally from Kampong Cham, ranted. “I’m so angry with the factory.”
Cambodians across Phnom Penh have spent the past few weeks making travel plans and purchases in anticipation of the Buddhist holiday. For many in the garment industry, much of that time was spent finding a way to finance the trek back home.
The dilemma, faced by many garment workers, is a familiar one, Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said. Most factories pay monthly salaries on the 10th, but the holiday weekend falls just before payday this year.
“Quite often, we hear about that,” Tola said. “The workers’ wage is too low; they don’t have any savings … [but] they need money for transportation, to buy things for their parents, for their children.”
The majority of factory owners agree to pay their employees their salary – or a sizeable portion of it – in advance of Pchum Ben, Tola said. But at other factories, management’s refusal to meet worker requests for pay advances leads workers to strike, find alternative sources of cash or sit out the holiday altogether.
Work in at least two factories came to a halt due to Pchum Ben-related disputes last week. Employees at Sae Han International (Cambodia) Co, Ltd and the Chin Chin garment factory staged walkouts.
About 150 Chin Chin workers briefly blocked National Road 4 in front of the Por Sen Chey district factory last Tuesday when the owner said he would pay workers half their salaries before the holiday, rather than the entire month’s pay.
“The workers need money to travel to their hometown to celebrate Pchum Ben,” said Va Sarorng, deputy chief of Por Sen Chey’s Choam Chao commune, where the factory is located.
After a four-hour negotiation, Sarorng said, management agreed to pay employees’ entire monthly salary in advance.
Workers at other factories opted to take what they could get.
When Pheng Meng Hong, 23, travels home for Pchum Ben, she likely won’t come bearing gifts as she usually does, she said. Meng Hong and her co-workers requested management at Terratex Knitting & Garment Int’l Factory Ltd pay them $70 before the long weekend, but conceded to their offer of $50.
“It is a very small amount of money, but I do not have a choice,” Meng Hong said last week. “I do not know whether it is enough for me to cover travelling expenses and buy some food for my parents.”
Some employers exploit their workers’ immediate need for money, by agreeing to advance the money in return for switching their long-term employment contract with a less desirable short-term contract, Tola said. Other workers borrow money at a high rate of interest, leaving them in a financial hole long after the Pchum Ben rice balls have dried.
The topic of Pchum Ben plans yesterday brought forth an especially dejected mood among workers at SL Garment Processing, who have been striking on and off for more than a month.
With about 6,000 employees currently on strike, SL management last week announced it would pay workers who were on strike between September 1 and September 20 half their monthly salary before Pchum Ben. Workers who remained at their stations would get their full salary, plus a 50 per cent bonus.
Chhin Sao, SL’s administrative manager, said workers were paid $15.
Kong Athit, vice president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union – which represents most SL workers – said the union demanded $60 per worker before the holiday, but he did not know whether the factory had made any payments yet.
According to Som Im, 24-year-old SL worker Soeun Vy and several others in front of the factory yesterday, strikers who had gathered to collect their goodwill payments received just $7.
Discussing his Pchum Ben prospects yesterday, Vy looked down toward the muddy dirt road in front of SL.
“I owe two months’ rent and already borrowed money from my parents,” Vy sighed. “I have no money to go home.”