Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng and ministry spokesman Heng Sour yesterday accused unions and the opposition of derailing the government’s efforts at minimum wage reform by striking and stirring up violence for their own political gain.
“The government has set up a committee to study the minimum garment wage as a way of continually working to increase it, but the opposition party and some unions are using the result of our findings to demonstrate for their own political benefit and encourage violence,” Sam Heng said at the launch of the ministry’s 2013 annual report.
As the threat of another mass garment worker strike looms – and calls for the release of 21 union activists and workers arrested last month grow louder – Sour said protests of all stripes were a “waste of time”.
“They should stop all protests, because it is of no benefit. Rather, they should negotiate at the table,” he said.
“If they gather to protest, it damages our economy.”
The ministry’s reports say strikes in the industry increased from 61 in 2012 to 90 last year.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia – which has recently taken out an ad campaign questioning the “fundamental” right to strike – recorded 131 strikes through the beginning of December.
The officials’ comments follow the fatal shooting of four people by authorities on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard on January 3 during a garment strike sparked by dissatisfaction at the government’s proposed minimum wage increases.
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, denied yesterday that unions were seizing on disputes to strike for their own benefit.
“We’re focusing on workers’ benefits,” she said. “We think that we will keep demonstrating if the government does not increase the wage to $160. We don’t fear being broken up by authorities. We think protests will help change the wage.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann also dismissed the officials’ accusations, maintaining that the opposition’s demonstrations in December and January were separate to the garment strike, despite CNRP leader Sam Rainsy having urged workers to keep striking for a $160 monthly minimum wage.
“The ones organised by the CNRP demanded a re-election and electoral reform,” Sovann said. “The one organised by the workers was demanding an increase to the minimum wage.”
Sovann also said there was little chance of strikes across the country receding.
“Workers get a small salary and cannot survive.… Whenever their rights are violated, there will be more [strikes]. [But] for the political deadlock, we still want negotiations.”
Sam Heng said the government was continuing to address the wage issue at the committee level, adding it would seek the assistance of the International Labour Organization to help improve other conditions.
From 2012 to 2013, the ministry’s report says, the number of registered unions in Cambodia ballooned to 2,891 – up more than 300.
In an accompanying booklet given to journalists yesterday, the ministry makes bold claims about the government’s achievements, saying that since 2008, it has achieved freedom and human dignity “in all aspects”, as well as judicial and financial reform.
However, the booklet adds later, there is a need for the government to review the labour law – without saying how – and revisit the idea of introducing the country’s long-awaited trade union law and labour court.
Rather than striking, the ministry suggests continued resolution using the country’s respected Arbitration Council.
While that recommendation looks to the future, many still await answers over the deadly shootings on January 3.
The Ministry of Interior said yesterday that a completed investigation is still not ready for public viewing.
Sovann, from the CNRP, dismissed the investigation as not independent anyway.
“If they have a political will to find those who killed people that day, they can. But they don’t want to bring the perpetrators to the justice.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL AND MEAS SOKCHEA