By and
with contributions from Cheng Sokhorng
 on January 15, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The pressure continues to be applied to the Cambodian government.

Six North American retail, apparel and footwear associations sent a letter to Cambodia’s prime minister and other labor and garment officials on Wednesday, urging an immediate end to the violence that has roiled the country and seeking a resolution in the dispute over the country’s minimum wage rate.

The group’s letter came on the heels of a release of findings from a Cambodian government-commissioned task force in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, showing the average daily expenses of a worker, which prompted calls for a higher wage rate.

In Washington, the six industry trade groups pressed for an immediate end to the violence and hostility in Cambodia in their letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; Ken Loo, secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, and the presidents of several Cambodian labor unions.

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The deadliest day in Cambodia was on Jan. 3, when armed security forces opened fire on thousands of protesting garment workers, killing at least four workers and injuring more than 30 who were hospitalized. The government has since banned public gatherings in Phnom Penh and arrested more than 20 workers.

“Our industry is committed to ensuring that all the products that they produce, source and sell are manufactured under lawful and humane conditions,” the groups said in the letter. “As part of this commitment, we are committed to promoting the safety and security of workers in our supply chains.”

The heads of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, U.S. Fashion Industry Association, Retail Council of Canada and Canadian Apparel Federation signed the letter.

The groups called on all stakeholders to return to the table to negotiate a minimum wage that “permanently resolves” the situation, and to develop a “regular and predictable wage mechanism.”

“These actions will not only promote both the short- and long-term health and stability of the Cambodian garment and footwear industries, but these actions will also enable the Cambodian garment and footwear industry to maintain the strong relationships it has with our member companies,” they wrote.

The Cambodian task force found that the average Cambodia garment worker spends $157 to $177 on basic necessities each month, prompting unions to push for a minimum wage of $160, union leaders said at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning.

The task force, comprised of union members, manufacturers and government officials, was formed in August to determine a decent minimum wage for garment workers, who make up the largest workforce in the country.

An earlier survey of workers taken at about 100 factories around Phnom Penh revealed that the average worker spends more than $150 each month. Following this information, 18 union leaders, including those who were aligned with the government, signed a petition on Dec. 18 requesting for the minimum wage to be raised from $80 a month to $160.

“These findings were based on research and documents that were done by the committee and based on data from the Ministry of Planning,” said Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions. “With an amount between $157 and $177, this will allow a worker to have a decent living.”

Yet the government ignored these findings, and on Dec. 24 announced that the new monthly minimum wage would be $95. This decision caused outcry among unions and workers who mobilized themselves into a nationwide strike to protest for $160. A week later, the government revised the wage to $100, a move that did not placate workers. This prompted an industry shutdown, which cost manufacturers more than $200 million in losses.

“The union leaders and workers have been very disappointed with the government,” Chhun said.

According to local media reports, thousands of workers from four factories have gone back on strike this week to protest the factories’ decision not to pay any wages to workers who participated in the nationwide strikes. The Ministry of Labor had advised employers to pay their workers to avoid strife, but not all of them followed suit.

The seven other union leaders present during the press conference also expressed anger and confusion over the government’s refusal to accept the research it commissioned and its “unilateral” decision on an amount deemed insufficient.

“The [$95 and $100] increase was not made based on any research. Because of this, workers are not satisfied, and this is just not acceptable,” said Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia, adding that the government’s subsequent imprisonment of more than 20 workers has threatened their freedom of expression and association.

Stalled wage negotiations have also angered union leaders. Mann Senghak, secretary general of the Free Trade Union, said the new minimum-wage committee that was formed after the “barbarous shooting” is only going to tread on similar territory.

“The government just creates and creates and creates new working groups and committees, but none of the recommendations are ever accepted,” Senghak said. “Our stance is that we insist for the government to hold an immediate negotiation so that we can come up with a new minimum wage.”

Nang Sothy, the vice chairman of the Labor Advisory Council — a government body that decides on the wage raise — defended his committee’s initial amount of $95, and said the research done by the task force did not stipulate that those amounts should be the minimum wage.

“There was no report about that [the minimum wage],” he said. “The report is only on the demands of the living [of a worker].”

“When you are willing to increase more than Vietnam, do you think [investors] will continue to invest in Cambodia, where the electricity costs are high, where there are so many holidays, where there’s corruption, where there are protests?” Sothy continued.

He added that employers actually called only for a $10 increase and the government opted for $15.

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Prak Chanthoeun, director-general of the labor conflict committee within the Ministry of Labor, echoed Sothy’s fears about losing investors, and added that overtime hours would bring a worker about $150 a month with the higher minimum wage.

“If we raise the salaries too much, investors will not come to Cambodia anymore,” Chanthoeun said. “Some workers in other factories could get $200 a month. This new minimum wage does not mean that workers can get only $100.”

Currently, 38-year-old Seang Souphea, a seamstress at a bra factory, takes home about $140 a month after working overtime daily as well as holidays.

But the mother of two said excessive overtime means that she never spends any time with her children, and her greatest fear is falling ill and missing work.

“If I do not work overtime every day, I will not have enough money to spend on my children’s livelihoods or their schools,” Souphea said, adding that she also pays for her 70-year-old mother’s health expenses. “If I had $160 a month, I’d feel a release.”

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