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‘Long-term’ key in garment worker wage negotiations

Garment worker unions are seeking a minimum wage of $168 per month.
Garment worker unions are seeking a minimum wage of $168 per month. Kimberley McCosker

‘Long-term’ key in garment worker wage negotiations

In June, William Conklin was appointed country director of the NGO Solidarity Center, which works to build consensus and capacity among Cambodia’s unions, provides legal support for union leaders and is lobbying the government to institute a national minimum wage across all industries. With the country’s garment unions this week announcing they would seek an industry minimum $168 per month in this year’s annual wage negotiations – significantly more than the industry is willing to agree to – Audrey Wilson spoke to Conklin about the potential outcomes as well as the need for industry accountability

What do you see as an ideal figure for the settlement?
I don’t know if there’s an ideal figure, because workers are so reliant on overtime. They can earn more than $200 a month, but garment workers send a good chunk of their salary back to their families. Is that a basic need or not? You can debate that. But that is the condition of being a garment worker here. It was a large jump from $100 to $128 [last year]. Say this year they go up to 20 per cent or 30 per cent — which probably is unlikely — that, too, would be such a large jump that workers would never be able to negotiate anything beyond that amount. They’re still making up for lost time. Rather than just focusing on one number each year, a long-term strategy is really important. But if you are going to think about base numbers, they need to be high enough to take into account what it costs to live in Phnom Penh, and in industrial areas. If the number is too low for the unions, I think there will be a lot of discontent.

Do you think that factories are being held accountable — accurately reporting their own profit margin, for example?
I can feel for the manufacturers — I do believe that they are under tight margins and they feel that the brands haven’t lived up to their promises. There are accusations back and forth. But workers are under the greatest strain. I think the most sustainable way going forward is effective unions that have real collective bargaining. Third-party monitoring is effective, but it is costly. But unions have to be strong enough to challenge factories if necessary. If you’re bargaining from a very unequal position, you’re not going to get much.

How would a higher minimum wage for garment workers affect Cambodia’s competitive advantage in the global market?
This is like the glass half-empty, half-full. Employers will claim it puts Cambodia at a disadvantage. But people play with numbers all the time. When you start comparing Cambodia to its neighbours, it’s like apples and oranges. Cambodia’s never going to be a top-tier production country. You have a high level of foreign investment, and not a lot of vested interest in Cambodia.

How do you foresee negotiations playing out in the coming week, and beyond?
Certainly the employers know what they would like. And it’s not much. I think the government feels that it will step in to make a compromise. But compromises are notorious for not satisfying either side. I think the brands — the ones that really matter: the H&Ms, the Gaps — have a role to play. Some real negotiations need to happen between brands and manufacturers. But for the workers, it is very much a here and now issue. It’s hard to talk about the future when you’re struggling to make payments and struggling to survive.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.