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More talk, fewer strikes: study

Garment workers protest at the gates of the National Assembly earlier this year in Phnom Penh.
Garment workers protest at the gates of the National Assembly earlier this year in Phnom Penh. A study to be published next month outlines better communication as means of reducing industry strikes. Heng Chivoan

More talk, fewer strikes: study

In a new study of Cambodia’s garment and footwear industry, the independent conflict resolution Arbitration Council has found that labour strikes are often triggered by factors that could be avoided through better communication between workers and management.

Data from the study – which will be published next month – was presented to union, civil society, factory and government representatives last week, at a convention on labour relations in the Kingdom’s largest export industry.

“The primary aim is to assist parties in being better able to resolve disputes without escalating to strike action,” Men Nimmith, executive director of the Arbitration Council, said in a statement.

“By analysing the industrial relations community’s views on strikes, we can have a better idea of how to improve labour relations.”

A presentation of their findings recommends enhanced collective bargaining, increased transparency and other improvements in relations between employers and workers.

Cambodia’s garment sector has grown from an industry employing fewer than 350,000 people in 2009 to more than 600,000 in 2013, according to Arbitration Council data. During that period, the number of workdays lost to strikes has varied each year, but reached its highest level in 2013 – the year during which an ultimately fatal nationwide garment strike began – with more than 900,000 lost days recorded.

Of the industrial disputes that reached the Arbitration Council, 52 per cent have involved conflict over meal allowances, 32 per cent were related to terminations and 31 per cent involved feuds over attendance bonuses.

“This year’s strikes were contributed by problems at the ground floor faced by management,” Chuon Mom Thol, president of the government-leaning Cambodia Union Federation, said yesterday.

“[But] the unions seem to have more negotiation power; management seems to acknowledge the importance of this dialogue.”

Mom Thol said that he believed strikes have fallen this year compared to last year – with just below 700,000 workdays lost, according to Arbitration Council data.

He added that the industry is seeing an increasing amount of dialogue between unions and management, which will likely lead to fewer strikes in the future.

However, Community Legal Education Center consultant Joel Preston scoffed at the idea that factories are now engaging in more genuine negotiations than before, saying strikes are correlated with wages and cost of living.

“There’s no way that we can consider the current attitude of factory owners, in general, to be engaging in collective bargaining in good faith,” Preston said yesterday.

“What [striking workers are] talking about is their wage and cost of living, and I think that will be the determining factor [in increases or decreases in strikes].”

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