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Unions unite across ideologies

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, talks to garment workers during a demonstration on Veng Sreng Boulevard last month. Hong Menea

Unions unite across ideologies

Independent garment unions have experienced unprecedented cooperation from pro-government unions during garment sector minimum wage talks this year, but some unionists and observers fear the congeniality is only for show.

In a stark departure from other years when the Ministry of Labour’s Labour Advisory Committee (LAC) raised the garment sector’s floor wage, the five pro-government unions on the LAC are now actively engaging with the two independent unions on the committee and concerned unions outside the process.

“We try to get consensus, because for the workers group [on the LAC] to succeed, we need to be united,” said Chuon Mom Thol, president of government-leaning Cambodian Union Federation. “When we are united, we get what we want.”

The 21-member LAC includes seven representatives from the government, seven from employers and seven from labour unions. Within the union group, two are independent and five are typically government-aligned.

In past years, pro-government unions never engaged with either of the independent unions on the LAC – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC) – to find common ground on a wage demand, Free Trade Union secretary-general Say Sokny said.

Leadership from C.CAWDU and NIFTUC could not be reached yesterday.

All government-aligned LAC unions last year favoured a $95 minimum monthly wage – which Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng later hiked to $100 – rather than the $160 that C.CAWDU and NIFTUC requested. The decision was followed by a 10-day, nationwide garment-worker strike that ended on January 3, when military authorities shot dead at least five demonstrators on Veng Sreng Boulevard.

The fact that the LAC unions have collectively decided on $150 as an acceptable minimum monthly wage – though independent unions are publicly campaigning for $177 – is unheard of, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

“Unlike previous years, there actually has been real discussion between unions across the spectrum,” Welsh said.

The tilt towards negotiations came from advice out of Welsh’s group, as well as international unions, the International Labour Organization and others, pro-government unionist Mom Thol said.

But the Free Trade Union’s Sokny said she doubted the government-associated unions’ solidarity with independent unions amounts to much more than a public-relations effort.

“[Government-leaning unions] never ever support the minimum wage increase beyond what the government offers,” Sokny said.

Community Legal Education Center labour department head Moeun Tola shared Sokny’s doubts that the unity between typically pro-government unions and independent ones would hold if the other two LAC groups reject their agreed-upon wage.

“I used to have optimism for them, that they would join hands,” Tola said. “I don’t see that there is a real heavy commitment.”

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