Clauses within the first draft of a new expanded minimum wage law – a copy of which was obtained by the Post yesterday – have alarmed observers and trade unionists alike, who say that it would shackle rather than empower workers.
“The whole process is formalised and the power taken away from the unions,” Ou Virak, president of think tank Future Forum, said after reading the draft yesterday. “Strong and truly independent unions that could not be co-opted will be sidelined and after that, they can’t do anything because they’ll be illegal.”
The law is being touted as expanding upon the current minimum wage for garment workers and setting the foundations for Cambodia’s first universal minimum wage, which would be decided each year – as with the garment sector – by a tripartite “minimum wage council”, to be constituted in equal parts by union representatives, employers and government officials.
However, while trade union leaders – such as the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union president Ath Thorn – yesterday welcomed the news that they would be given an equal vote on the minimum wage council, they worried about hefty fines prescribed in Articles 25 and 26. “The fines are large and we are not happy with it,” Thorn said. “What we are happy with is the tripartite council because we want to be equal.”
Under Article 25, “creating obstacles or putting illegal pressure on discussions to determine the minimum wage” could see offenders slapped with a 5 million riel ($1,250) fine. The draft law does not define “obstacles” or “illegal pressure” and Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour did not answer phone calls from a reporter seeking clarification.
Further, Article 26 allows for 10 million riel ($2,500) fines for anyone who “incites activities against the declaration of the minimum wage”.
Sok Kin, deputy president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, said both articles threatened to neuter unions. “When wages are low, the workers must protest.
And [the government] could use Article 25 to put pressure on us to stop demanding [better pay],” Kin said. “This law was designed to restrict independent unions’ activities.”
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, agreed but added that Article 26 was even more worrying than 25.
“Usually journalists will ask unions for comment about whether they are happy over [salary] decisions. I’ve often said that I was unhappy over a decision,” Sophorn said. “If the minimum wage law was adopted and I did that, I might face punishment.”
William Conklin, director for labour rights NGO Solidarity Centre, had not read the draft law yesterday but said articles 25 and 26 risked provoking a chilling effect.
“Those have the potential to really discourage negotiations, because you’re saying that everyone who has a different view can’t continue to raise it,” he said.
“But overall, one would think that the movement to a national minimum wage structure is a very good thing; but consultation is key to any success.”