The Cambodian Labour Confederation held a May Day rally near Wat Phnom on Tuesday morning, with nearly 1,000 workers gathering to demand a minimum wage of $207 and expressing disappointment at the impact of the Kingdom’s controversial Trade Union Law.
Phnom Penh authorities were out in full force to meet the demonstrators, with more than 100 police officers and Daun Penh district security guards present at the rally.
The labour federation had initially asked to march from near the Council for the Development of Cambodia by Wat Phnom to the National Assembly, but Phnom Penh City Hall denied them permission, only allowing for a rally along the riverside.
Workers braved intense heat as confederation President Ath Thorn called on the government to ensure that the minimum wage is opened up to all sectors and that it reaches $207 per month. The current minimum wage of $170 applies only to the garment sector, and negotiations over a universal minimum wage draft law are ongoing.
Thorn also reiterated concerns over the 2016 Trade Union Law, which has been criticised for curbing union organisation, recruitment and activities, while also acknowledging the government has been more attentive to workers’ concerns this last year.
“We can see the prime minister cares more about the workers this year after 10 years of working in the sector,” he said.
Thorn’s speech was interrupted by a worker fainting because of the heat, prompting the entire rally to move to a more shaded location.
Four lawmakers – one from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and three from Funcinpec – met the workers and accepted a petition containing 19 demands, which included an occupational safety law across sectors, formation of labour courts and a curb on factories’ overuse of short-term contracts.
Accepting the petition, CPP lawmaker Lao Kheng said she had received a similar petition last year and that the government had followed up on some of the suggestions.
“I promise to bring the 19 points in this petition to discuss among the first committee of the National Assembly and to submit it to the government to inform them about the concerns and the demands of the workers,” she said.
Kea Sophal, a garment worker from Russey Keo district, said her factory continued to keep her on three-month contracts, giving her little job security or seniority – which will ultimately affect her benefits.
“We’ve gotten so tired after 10 years of working, so we’re considering doing something else,” she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has been aggressively courting garment workers by meeting with them on a weekly basis and offering handouts for factory employees, such as “baby bonuses” and improved health care.
Continuing his outreach, the premier met with around 5,000 workers from the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Tuesday, announcing early on that he was there only to celebrate International Labour Day with the workers and not make a speech. The workers each received food, drink and around 50,000 riel (about $12.50) in cash, and danced to celebrate the occasion.
Security was also tight on the road leading to National Assembly, where another group of unionists from Solidarity House submitted a petition to parliament.
Union leaders Ou Tepphalin and Yang Sophorn were allowed to submit the document, with the former questioning the need for the heavy security detail.
“It is hard to say [why]. They just said this is the order from their top leaders,” she said.