Garment workers leave the Tack Fat factory at the end of their shift, in Phnom Penh on April 3.
The music and dancing usually found in labor communities ringing factories around Khmer New Year has faded.
It’s been silenced by a struggle with inflation so severe that some workers are returning to their rural homelands as the cost of living in Phnom Penh rises beyond their salaries.
Unions and garment manufacturers are believed to have accepted on April 1 a government-sponsored $6 monthly wage hike for all garment and shoe factory workers. If formalized on April 4 as expected, the deal will avert strikes that have been delayed since March 28.
While the government backed the Free Trade Union’s demanded pay raise, the Minister of Social Affairs, Ith Sam Heng, accused Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun and FTU president Chea Mony of seeking wage increases for political gain.
Heng said he has ordered a legal team to assess whether to pursue action against the CCU, which includes the FTU and is widely acknowledged to be affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
Political maneuvering aside, questions remain whether the $6 raise will be enough to improve the workers' wellbeing.
“In past years, as Khmer New Year approached, workers would always gather along the road near the factories in Chak Angre for dancing at night,” said Hok Setha, who represents workers at the USA factory there.
“But now it’s been very quiet. Many of the workers in the area returned to their homeland because of inflation.”
He said five workers from his factory have already quit and he will join them to return to his home in Saang district, Kandal, to farm.
“Working on rice harvests, we can earn $3 or more a day, but working in the factory we get less than $2,” said the 28-year-old.
Sim Sophal, 43, from Kampong Cham, has worked at the CIT New garment factory nearly a decade and still receives the minimum monthly wage of $50.
Her 1,000-riel meals now cost 1,500 or 2,000 riel and her monthly housing rent that used to be $5 has climbed by 50 percent.
She said she will look for another job, along with ten of her co-workers, because she can no longer afford to live in Phnom Penh, let along save money to send to her family in the countryside.
Chhan Sreymao, 27, a worker at the Hat Enterprise factory in Phnom Penh’s Ang Snuol district, said about ten workers were quitting each month to return to their villages or to look for higher paying jobs in the city.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said about 2,000 workers left in March as soaring inflation made living in Phnom Penh impossible for them.
In 50 factories in the provinces of Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kampong Speu, he said, “20 to 50 workers per month have quit at each factory because their salary couldn't pay for their living expenses. Eighty to 90 percent of them returned to their homelands and a small number have remained in Phnom Penh looking for a new job.”
He said the discussed minimum increases are not enough to convince workers to stay.
FTU president Chea Mony said he expected significant numbers of workers in Phnom Penh to leave the city in April and May.
“I’ve found many female workers have gone to restaurants after they left the factories. This job can give them more income than factory work so I don't blame them.”
Alonzo Suson, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said some factory owners are complaining of labor shortages and are considering relocating their factories to the countryside where costs are lower.
However, while inflation has created hardship for many workers, it is unlikely they can simply flee to the countryside in droves, said Tuomo Poutiainen, an advisor for the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program.
“You already have some 250,000 people joining the labor force every year,” Poutiainen said. “What will the departing workers do? It’s not the favored work of Cambodians to be in the field.”
John Ritchotte, a labor dispute advisor for ILO Cambodia, said that while the current wage disputes were triggered by inflation, “to my knowledge there aren’t discussions about broader issues of productivity and competitiveness, and I think that was a missed opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Lang Phalla, 26, from Prey Veng, whose salary is pegged to the minimum wage, is struggling with her present income. “I’m happy about the raise but $6 is not enough with the rising prices.”