Garment factory workers will receive free health care, free access to public transport in Phnom Penh and a minimum wage increase to at least $168 per month, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced following a gathering of thousands of garment industry employees yesterday.
Ou Ratana, a Labour Ministry official and organiser of the event, said that between 4,500 and 4,700 people from 93 factories attended the speech on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich, including factory managers, supervisors and their assistants.
Low level factory workers – who comprise a voting bloc hundreds of thousands strong – were not invited, and only a few seemingly pro-government unions attended, and only in their capacity as government advisers, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said yesterday. “We did not invite unions [in general],” he said, without offering further explanation.
After the speech, Hun Sen said on Facebook he had convened the gathering “to hear their concerns about their working conditions”, adding that he would host similar events every Sunday, and visit workers every Wednesday.
In addition to the health care and salary promises, the premier said that garment factory workers in Phnom Penh would be able to use the existing public buses for free for two years, starting immediately.
William Conklin, country director of labour rights organisation Solidarity Center, welcomed the move as it could prevent frequent accidents involving commuting garment workers, but said long-term initiatives should be undertaken, and added that “buses would have to link to the factories themselves”.
And Moeun Tola, of labour rights organisation Central, said that he was concerned the promises were merely a political move to gain votes ahead of national election in 2018, and worried they wouldn’t lead to substantial change. “I don’t want to see political motivation in this issue,” he said. “Two years [of free public transport] will not be able to fix [the issue].”
Per the premier’s announcement, starting on January 1, employers will have to pay all costs for workers’ health insurance, which had previously cost workers 1.3 percent of their salary. Choong Wei Piau, general manager at Canteran Apparel and Quality Textile factories, said this would cost him “a few thousand dollars” per factory.
“I don’t think we can do anything about it,” he said. “We just need to follow what the government decides.”
Although Central’s Tola welcomed free health care in general, he said Cambodia’s health care system as such was too poor. “Even the prime minister goes out of Cambodia when he’s sick,” he said.
Perhaps most significantly, the prime minister also promised to increase the minimum wage – a perennial issue that has sparked mass protests in years past, including after national elections in 2013 – from $153 to at least $168.
However, Ath Thorn, of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said wages still had to be higher. “We conducted research and found that the cost of living . . . is more than $200,” he said.
Garment worker Eang Mealea also expressed concern that the wage increase wasn’t enough. “I am happy . . . but my concern is every time we get a wage increase, I get more pressure at work, as I need to reach a higher target,” she said. “And the rent also increases every year.”