As about 5,000 workers marched through the streets of Phnom Penh yesterday to lobby for better pay and fairer conditions, Prime Minister Hun Sen used International Labour Day to talk up the opportunities arising from a labour shortage fast approaching 30,000 jobs.
Speaking at an event inside Sihanoukville Port Special Economic Zone, Hun Sen urged Cambodians to resist the lure of illegal work in Thailand, saying shortages in industries such as agriculture and construction meant people could find the jobs they wanted at home.
“I would like to appeal to all Cambodian people who are waiting to cross illegally into Thailand to return home,” he said.
“Crossing the border illegally to work in Thailand is not the right way, especially because inside our own country we have a labour shortage,” Hun Sen said, referring to figures given to him by Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng.
Furthermore, the prime minister said, conditions in Cambodia were much better than conditions illegal workers would find in Thailand.
“Salaries in Thailand are not much different from Cambodia,” he said. “Yes, there are high salaries in Thailand, but we should not forget these people are illegal migrant workers. They are separated from their family and there are many other problems. Therefore, work in our country is better.”
A spokesman for the International Labour Organization, however, said the principal push factor for workers leaving Cambodia for Thailand was the “limited number of decent work opportunities available at home”.
“The main pull factor is the wage differential,” he said. “Thailand [has promised to raise] the minimum wage to 300 baht [$10 per day] in seven provinces and by 40 per cent in the other provinces.”
The premier also appealed to Cambodian investors who were experiencing labour shortages to provide more information about opportunities in their industry; however, Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said the government needed to take some responsibility for this.
“There’s a huge shortage [of workers] in garment sectors, too,” he said. “If the government is serious about this, they should be doing a better job to market the openings that exist in the garment industry.”
More than 5,000 people, primarily garment workers, who marched through the capital yesterday, however, don’t share Hun Sen’s enthusiastic outlook and want the government to agree to a list of 14 demands to improve their working conditions.
The workers, led by 16 unions and civil society organisations, walked from the Council for the Development of Cambodia in Daun Penh district at about 7am yesterday to the National Assembly to make known their demands, which include increasing the minimum wage to $131 per month, ending the use of short-term contracts for workers and cracking down on rights abuses.
The marchers also called for the creation of an independent court to punish perpetrators of violent acts such as the February shootings at Kaoway Sports factory, a supplier to PUMA.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Worker’s Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said yesterday’s march sent an important message to the government.
“The abuse of workers’ rights, threat to workers, improper living standards of workers on low salaries, striking and fainting happen frequently, but the government’s solution is unfair and at odds with the law,” he said.
In response to the march, Hun Sen urged workers and employers to compromise.
“If there is more profit made, then an employer should give incentives to the workers,” he said. “If workers’ health is good, the production and the quality of the factory will also be good.”
“It is simply unacceptable that employers are calling on the authorities to ‘crack down’ on legitimate strikes, and worse that they are publicly demonising independent unions who have had the courage to stand up for their members and demand respect on the job,” Sharan Burrow, the ITUC general-secretary, said in the statement.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, dismissed the comments.
“Actually, these strikes are not legitimate,” he said. “Unions are not negotiating in good faith.”