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Workers quietly trickle back

Garment workers gather behind barbed wire during a strike on Monday in Phnom Penh
Garment workers gather behind barbed wire during a strike on Monday in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Workers quietly trickle back

As garment union groups resume their strike today, thousands of workers plan on returning to work, largely citing financial necessity rather than ideological disagreement with the unions.

The Ministry of Labour on Monday ordered union leaders to cease a nationwide strike that began nine days ago, after the ministry’s Labour Advisory Committee set this year’s minimum monthly wage for workers in the garment sector at $95 – $65 less than unions demanded. The ministry this week tacked another $5 onto the minimum wage, which will now rise to $100 next month.

“If we do not return to work, the factory will not pay us,” said Noun Bunthoeun, a worker representative at Chu Hsing Garments (Cambodia) Co Ltd in Phnom Penh, who added that more than 7,000 workers – about 80 per cent – at the Russey Keo district factory’s three branches will return today. “This does not mean we are abandoning our demand for [a minimum wage of] $160.”

Lacking financial resources is the primary motive for workers at 30 factories in Svay Rieng province, who will come back to work today, said Sok Na, a representative for the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) at the Best Way garment factory in Bavet town.

Na yesterday pointed out that after overtime pay, transportation bonuses and other benefits, workers at his factory typically take home more than $160 each month.

“We do not want to lose our work,” Na said in an interview yesterday. “If the workers in Phnom Penh get the Labour Ministry to increase the minimum wage, we will get the same here.”

Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) vice president Kong Athit yesterday said he is not worried about too many strikers returning to work, because enough people are willing to remain on strike to make a serious impact. It stands to reason that workers in an industry where employees live paycheque to paycheque cannot bear the financial burden of a prolonged strike, he added.

“These are working poor people,” Athit said. “Nobody forced them to go on strike.… We will support any decision that is taken by the workers.”

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour yesterday said ministry officials will closely watch union leaders who continue striking despite an order to stop.

“The Labour Ministry and authorities will keep an eye on union leaders who are leading the strike, and their activities,” Sour said.

The six unions on strike – C.CAWDU, CUMW, the Free Trade Union, the Coalition of Cambodian Unions, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and the Worker Friendship Union Federation – will hold a press conference this morning to respond to public statements made by the Labour Ministry and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said Athit.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN

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