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Wage fight heating back up

Union leader Chea Mony (centre) leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court
Union leader Chea Mony (centre) leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday after being questioned about his involvement in violent garment strikes in December and January. Heng Chivoan

Wage fight heating back up

Negotiations for next year’s garment sector minimum wage heated up yesterday, as eight labour union leaders threatened another industry-wide walkout, one even larger than the 10-day strike that began on December 25, if their demands are not met.

“I want to send message … that if the negotiation this year is similar to last year’s, I think a bigger strike will happen,” Seang Sambath, president of the Workers Friendship Union Federation, said yesterday at a press conference.

But signs of accommodation were evident too. As unions prepare the public campaign for a $177 minimum monthly wage with a protest outside about 300 factories planned for tomorrow, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Workers’ Democratic Union, said they would be willing to accept as little as $150.

The prospect of a strike the size of the one that crippled the industry towards the end of last year is unnerving, according to Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour. That strike abruptly ended on January 3 when military authorities shot at least five demonstrators dead during a violent protest on Veng Sreng Boulevard.

“Of course we are scared, but we still have faith in the labour unions,” Sour said, warning that repercussions are out of the ministries’ hands if a strike turned violent. “If they cross the line then they are the ones responsible for the consequences.”

As union leaders spoke with the press, Free Trade Union (FTU) president Chea Mony, one of six union leaders charged with crimes allegedly committed during last year’s strike, was questioned in Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Investigating judge Chea Sokheng ordered Mony to report to police monthly and not participate in any public protests, like Thorn and Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina, who were already questioned.

Mony, who said FTU is not part of the minimum wage campaign, believes the charges and questioning to be politically motivated.

“The union leaders … [the court] blocks in order to prevent them from joining any [protests during] this case,” Mony said through a translator.

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