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Wage decision delayed

Garment workers hold placards and chant in front of the Ministry of Labour
Garment workers hold placards and chant in front of the Ministry of Labour during a protest in June calling for higher wages and better working conditions. Pha Lina

Wage decision delayed

Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng yesterday postponed his ministry’s Labour Advisory Committee’s decision on Cambodia’s garment sector minimum wage from Friday until next month, leaving some optimistic and others dubious.

In the original schedule, the minimum wage for 2015 was slated to be set in October and go into effect in January. The LAC had been expected to set the minimum wage unilaterally – a system that concerned some unionists – but according to a statement released by the Labour Ministry yesterday evening, a specific date for the setting of the new wage has yet to be determined.

“If they come up with a better strategy [for setting the wage] in this time, it’s good,” said Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), which is represented on the LAC. “But if they don’t, it will just make people lose confidence and get worried.”

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday evening for comment.

In past years, the LAC’s two independent unions – C.CAWDU and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC) – clashed with unions perceived to be government-leaning, such as the Cambodian Union Federation (CUF). However, this year, all LAC unions met and agreed to seek a minimum monthly wage of $150.

The unprecedented unity among the seven unions represented on the LAC – the 21-member committee also includes seven government representatives and seven factory representatives – is a large part of why the ministry is erring on the side of taking its time, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

“I think the fact that there is a very strong unified line … is unprecedented, and more time to assess how to deal with it is something that the government is looking at,” Welsh said.

CUF president Chuon Mom Thol yesterday praised the ministry’s decision to postpone a final vote until next month. More discussion and workshops on the issue could help avoid a situation like last year, when the ministry’s decision to set wages at $60 less than independent unions demanded sparked a 10-day nationwide strike.

“Previously, we did not have enough time to discuss some of the issues, but now the ministers are trying to allow as much discussion as possible,” Mom Thol said. He praised Labour Minister Sam Heng’s judgement that the ministry should also meet with unions not represented in the LAC.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said yesterday that he also favoured the new policy of meeting with unions outside the LAC. CUMW is a stronger activist union than the independent or pro-government unions represented in the LAC, “If the ministry only meets with the LAC … there would be no chance they would increase the minimum wage enough,” Sina said yesterday.

Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labour program, said the Ministry of Labour should do away with the LAC and find a completely new system of setting the minimum wage.

While the LAC sets the minimum wage, by law, it is only supposed to advise the government on wages, Tola said. The makeup of the committee and its perceived power allows it to be the government’s scapegoat.

“The LAC only has the power to advise,” he said.

Giving people enough time to talk out their differences also resonated with Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

GMAC previously offered a minimum monthly wage hike from $100 to $110 – saying that’s the maximum it could pay – and declined to negotiate with unions. GMAC also said it would abide by the LAC’s decision.

“I understand the basis of the statement, [but] what we said is our numbers informed us that the amount we could afford to pay is $110,” Loo told the Post.

But the postponement “would allow us more time to [speak with] our membership and see if their position has changed”, he added.

NIFTUC president Morm Nhim said yesterday that she disagreed with the postponement and thought workers have waited long enough for a minimum wage raise. Morm said if they set a minimum wage closer to January 1, when it is scheduled to be implemented, unions will have less time to dispute the floor salary if it’s seen as unfair.

“If they postpone, we cannot reject the government’s decision,” Nhim said.

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