Prime Minister Hun Sen has called for a “win-win solution” to the ongoing garment-sector dispute that would see all striking workers return to their jobs and the courts drop all complaints filed against them by factory owners.
“I appeal to the courts to stop working on the factories’ complaints, and appeal to all the factory owners to allow the workers to return to work, and appeal to the unionists to respect the labour law,” the premier said during a speech at a graduation ceremony at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh.
On September 13, tens of thousands of workers staged strikes that were spurred largely by a July decision to set the industry’s minimum wage at US$61 per month, far below the $93 that some union leaders had sought.
The strikes were called off on September 16, but fresh stoppages broke out the next day in response to reports that about 200 union leaders accused of inciting the original strikes had been suspended.
Kong Athit, secretary general of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said that nearly 20 factories had filed legal complaints against union leaders and other workers who had participated in the strikes, and that more than 800 workers had been suspended or fired in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kompong Speu provinces.
Hun Sen said that he had signed documents on Tuesday that “suggest to the court to stop accusing the workers and also the union leaders, and plead with all factories to accept the workers to return to work".
“That is the win-win solution,” he said. “I want to appeal to all unionists and the garment workers. We have to consider that the factories are our rice pot.
“Losing factories or having orders cancelled for factories means that we lose work to do, and the person who is affected by losing the work is the worker. The factory will move to another country when they don’t have the ability to increase wages, so who will be affected and lose the benefits? It is only the workers, not the employers.”
He said a resolution to the dispute would have to come from both workers and employers. “I appeal to both parties, workers and employers. They are the couple which cannot be separated from each other,” he said.
In Vanvibol, president of Kandal provincial court, declined to comment on whether legal complaints would be dropped by the court, saying he had not heard Hun Sen’s speech.
Chiv Keng, president of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that “many of the factories have already allowed employees to return to work”, and then hung up on a reporter.
Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said it would be up to individual factories to decide whether to withdraw legal complaints against union leaders and workers.
“We will inform the factories that this is the request of the prime minister, but it is up to the individual factories what they decide to do,” he said.
Kong Athit said he welcomed the call for the courts to drop complaints. “I think it is right because we should not solve the problem through the court like a penal crime, but we should find a solution by respecting each other and being peaceful,” he said.
He noted that unions had already urged workers to suspend strikes, pending negotiations conducted by a newly formed bipartite committee that are expected to begin in October. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BROOKE LEWIS