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Unions’ house divided

Garment workers sew items of apparel at a factory in Phnom Penh last year. Yesterday union representatives voted to propose $158 as the new minimum wage for the garment industry.
Garment workers sew items of apparel at a factory in Phnom Penh last year. Yesterday union representatives voted to propose $158 as the new minimum wage for the garment industry. Vireak Mai

Unions’ house divided

A secret ballot yesterday failed to resolve garment union splits over what to demand at upcoming minimum wage talks, with at least one independent union rejecting the majority vote of $158 and vowing to put forward $178.

The division came a day after Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour warned that unions would forfeit their chance of submitting a proposal if they failed to offer up a single figure for Friday’s tripartite talks with manufacturers and the government to raise the minimum wage.

In its fourth meeting, the 15-union working group – including independent and government-aligned unions – again failed to reach a consensus.

A subsequent vote saw $158 – a $30 increase – prevail, with Choun Mom Thol, president of the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation (CUF), saying the result would be sent to the Labour Advisory Committee (LAC) today on behalf of the group.

But Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said pro-government unions had railroaded the committee.

He claimed that his union, along with at least three others, would instead propose $178 to the LAC as their position, dismissing Sour’s warnings that only a single figure presented by the working group as a whole would be considered.

“We don’t care about what Heng Sour said, because it is the unions’ proposal,” Thorn said.

“We will send our proposal. If they don’t give our amount . . . maybe we don’t join the negotiation process.”

According to Fa Saly, president of the independent National Trade Union Confederation, nine of the union groups represented voted for $158, while two voted for $166, three for $162, and one abstained.

Saying he supported the final figure reached, Saly added that he hoped the government would agree to a similar increase as last year, when the minimum wage was boosted $28, to $128.

“For me, if the government just increases to $155 or $156, I would be happy,” Saly said.

“Honestly, I would agree with $150, if we cannot get $158.”

Though calling the $158 reasonable, Mom Thol expressed doubt whether it could be obtained for the more than 600,000 workers in Cambodia’s biggest export industry.

“One hundred fifty-eight dollars is the number that we decided to send to the LAC, and I think $158 is not too high or too low,” Mom Thol said.

“But I do not expect we will get what we requested, because the employers are too smart to agree with our request.”

Meanwhile, Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said he considered yesterday’s vote just a “test” of where the members stood and not an official proposal.

Backing a $166 minimum wage, Sina also commented on Sour’s threats that offering multiple figures would risk unions losing their seat at the table.

“It would not be justice for the workers and unions if the LAC decides to use only the figure from employers if we do not agree on a figure,” said Sina.

The LAC – comprising 14 government representatives and seven each from employers and unions – will meet on Friday and next week to discuss the rise with a final decision due before the end of October.

Speaking yesterday, Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, declined to comment on the merits of $158 but reiterated that his members “cannot afford any increase”.

William Conklin, head of labour rights group Solidarity Centre, said he hoped the LAC process would accommodate the well-established division among the union camps.

“One would hope there are some adjustments that recognise the reality and the development of trade union fragmentation,” he said.

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