LABOUR officials have voted to boost the monthly minimum wage for garment workers by US$11, a figure that falls far short of what some major unions were demanding – prompting fresh warnings that a large-scale strike will be held next week.
During a meeting of the Labour Advisory Committee on Thursday, a panel of officials, factory representatives and union leaders voted to increase the minimum wage by $5. They also endorsed a plan to meld the existing $6 cost of living supplement into the basic wage, thereby raising the minimum wage from $50 per month to $61.
Labour Minister Vong Soth said the new wage would go into effect in October and remain in place until 2014.
“It was not approved only by the government, but agreed on by employees and unions,” he said.
Going into the meeting, some unionists had demanded wages ranging from $70 to $93. Last month, Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, threatened to stage a three-day strike starting July 13 if his demand of $70 was not met.
After the decision Thursday, Chea Mony said the strike plan remained in place.
“I cannot accept the $61 that the government approved,” he said. “My stance is the same. I will hold a protest strike on the same day to demand a minimum wage increase to $70.”
The prospect of other unions joining the strike was mixed. Ath Thun, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, called Thursday’s decision “unacceptable”, but said he needed to consult with his members before deciding whether to join the FTU strike.
Tep Kim Vannary, president of the Cambodian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said her members wanted more than an $11 monthly pay rise, but added that she had approved the ruling – making her one of five voting union representatives who did so.
Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said employers would have preferred a smaller increase, noting that GMAC had asked for a bump of just $4. But he said he voted in favour of the government’s proposal in the interest of compromise, and urged unions to abide by it.
“We will ensure all our members comply with the increase, and we hope the workers will do similarly,” Loo said.
In explaining Thursday’s decision, Labour Minister Vong Soth suggested that boosting the minimum wage by too much could make Cambodia an unattractive destination for garment industry investors.
That sentiment was echoed by GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng. “If we increase more than this, [employers] will stop investing in our country,” he said.
But labour advocates say employers enjoy comparatively comfortable profit margins. Research commissioned by the Community Legal Education Centre suggests garment industry profit margins trail only those seen in Bangladesh, said CLEC labour programme director Moeun Tola, who added that Thursday’s decision could provoke widespread anger among union members.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY