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Unions Decry Minimum Wage Rise of $13

Mom Kunthear / Khmer Times Share:
Garment and footwear factory workers are not happy with the new minimum wage. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Unions are still seething at the new minimum wage figure for garment and footwear industry workers – which the government decided to raise by only $13 per month last Thursday – but stopped short of saying they would organize protests out of a fear for workers’ physical and legal safety, according to some union leaders.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said last week that he was unhappy with the Labor Advisory Committee’s (LAC) decision to bump up the minimum wage to $148, which Prime Minister Hun Sen then increased by $5 as he did last year.
“We are not happy with the $153 number. Our figure that we proposed was $171 per month for 2017, and we thought that our number was very low already,” he said.
“In the end, we did not get the figure we requested.”
Mr. Thorn added that it was difficult to say whether workers would accept or reject the figure, and if they did reject the figure, what their next step would be.
He said he would discuss the situation with workers in his union, but aired concerns for both himself and other workers who have been threatened and may find themselves “under pressure from the courts” if they disagreed with the government’s decision.
But Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said the figure was actually too high, yet factory owners and employers were willing to accept it.
“I think it is a bit high, but acceptable because we have to respect and understand the cost of living in Phnom Penh that needs that kind of level. I think most factories can afford that level,” he said.
Mr. Sou Ieng aired his own criticisms of the government though, saying he hoped they would do more to help factories cut costs so that pay hikes could be absorbed. Specifically, he said the government had to reduce the costs and fees associated with productivity to help factories streamline services.
Labor Minister Ith Samheng, seemingly unaware of union criticism of the new minimum wage for 2017, told reporters that the figure was “good news” for workers and that he “expected workers would be happy” with the new minimum wage.
“It is normal that proposers will always want it higher and providers will want less, and for us we are looking for the middle point. I think this figure did not meet 100 percent of the requests, but it is better than it was previously,” he said.
The minimum wage will go into effect in January and Mr. Samheng threatened anyone who considered defying it.
“The ministry will review it thoroughly and if no one follows it, the ministry will take action through the law,” he said.
Last Thursday, the LAC’s 24 members – the vast majority of which are government officials – voted on the new minimum wage with three options on the table: the union figure of $171, the government choice of $148 and the proposed figure from employers of $147.
Factory owners say rising wages make it impossible to compete with other Asian nations that have higher levels of productivity, lower minimum wages and less operational costs.
But union-backed studies say garment workers need at least $200 per month to cover necessary expenses and the incremental rises in the minimum wage make it difficult for those attempting to move out of the industry.
A report on factories making products for international clothing giant H&M said workers they interviewed had on average at least $210 of expenses to cover each month.
However, union leaders now mired in government-proposed court cases against them as well as workers fearful of the now frequent violent responses to protests by police and the army worry that little can be done to dispute the new minimum wage figure.
In their report released this month on factories supplying H&M, Cambodian NGO CENTRAL said the calls for higher wages have “come at a high cost for protesters and unions” because of the resistance they face from employers and government bodies.
“This was especially the case during the wage demonstrations in December 2013 and January 2014, when hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets, voiced their discontent with the current wage level and demanded a hike from $80 to $160 per month.
“On January 2nd and 3rd the police and military forces turned violent and four people were killed, 39 injured and 23 detained,” the report said.
“No one has ever been charged with the killings and those injured have received no compensation. In later protests, the police or security guards have been using force to break up local demonstrations and filed legal complaints against union activists.
“Trade unions fear the struggle for higher wages will be even harder to take on after the new Trade Union Law, initiated to regulate the formation of trade unions and their activities, was passed in May 2016.”

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