Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng announced yesterday that this year’s round of garment sector minimum wage negotiations would begin in July, with unionists cautiously optimistic that next year’s national elections could benefit their cause despite calls from Sam Heng not to “politicise” the process.
Speaking at the launch of a two-day wage policy training event, Sam Heng said the negotiations would begin with unions, employers and the Ministry of Labour internally settling on their own desired wage figures. The following month, in August, the ministry will hold bilateral meetings with unions and employers, before trilateral meetings between the parties commence in September. The final national minimum wage will be due in October, and implemented in January 2018.
Noting next year’s national elections, Sam Heng also made a point of telling politicians not to “make a topic” of the wage, thereby creating “unnecessary turmoil”.
Minimum wage protests in the wake of the 2013 national elections – which coincided with mass opposition demonstrations – were put down in January of 2014, when authorities fired into a crowd of rioting workers on Veng Sreng Boulevard, killing five. The opposition’s occupation of Freedom Park, while technically unrelated, was violently dispersed the following day.
In spite of Sam Heng’s admonition, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he hoped political parties’ desire to curry favour would work in his favour.
“[Workers] will have more of a chance to receive the higher salary [as] each political party issues its policy to attract the support from garment factory workers,” he said, without naming the specific wage figure he would lobby for.
President of the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation Chuon Mom Thol was also cautiously optimistic, though he did not expect wages to rise as much as last year – when Cambodia’s garment workers saw an almost 10 percent raise, from $140 to $153 a month.
But, he noted, “Samdech [Hun Sen] usually motivates the workers during the [election] time”.
Meanwhile, Khun Taro, of the labour rights group Solidarity Center, said he found the Labour Minister’s call to depoliticise wage discussions absurd, given that the ruling CPP’s annual wage raises were clearly designed to have political results.
Moeun Tola, of the labour rights group Central, agreed, pointing out that when the opposition CNRP campaigned in 2012 on the popular pledge of a $150 minimum wage for the private sector and a $250 minimum wage for civil servants, the government began adjusting both wages upward.
“Without political pressure there would be no wage increase,” said Tola. Both Taro and Tola expressed concerns that a draft minimum wage law proposed by the Ministry of Labour, with its proposals to forbid independent wage-related research and prohibit opposition to the minimum wage, would further politicise the question of wage raises by trampling free speech and curtailing the ability of independent unions to advocate for their members.
On June 7th, Rick Helfenbein, the CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which represents some of the largest American apparel brands, including Gap and Levi-Strauss, urged the draft law’s reconsideration. Like Taro and Tola, Helfenbein expressed concern that if enacted, it could add “significant challenges to an already difficult discussion”.
Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour dismissed these worries, adding that the draft law would not be adopted by the National Assembly until the end of the year.
Additional Reporting by Yon Sineat