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U.N. Envoy Calls for Higher Wages in Cambodia

Surya Subedi also called for an investigation into the Jan. 3 shooting that killed at least least four garment workers.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — United Nations human rights envoy Surya Subedi said Thursday the Cambodian government should set a minimum wage that will provide workers with a decent standard of living and called for an investigation into a recent shooting that killed at least four garment workers.

Subedi, special rapporteur on Cambodia’s human rights situation, made his remarks during a press conference at the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh.

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Subedi’s visit — which commenced Monday as his 10th “fact-finding mission” and will end today — follows a tumultuous start to 2014 for Cambodia. After the government announced a new minimum-wage increase from $80 to $95 a month, garment workers took to the streets in a nationwide strike to protest for $160 a month, an amount that workers and labor activists believe is a decent living wage. The protests turned violent on Jan. 3 when armed security forces began firing rounds into crowds of rioting workers. At least four died, while more than 30 were injured.

“I strongly recommend that an investigation be undertaken on who issued and who carried out the order to shoot. If no such order was given, the individuals who fired their weapons must be brought to justice,” Subedi said. “Any measure taken by the government must meet three tests: necessity, legality and proportionality,” he continued. “In my opinion, those measures [employed by the government on Jan. 3] do not seem to meet those tests of international law.”

Subedi also called for the government either to strengthen its current mechanisms employed to set a minimum wage, or to establish new ones. Doing so means that the government should consider consultation with all stakeholders, particularly when it concerns the rising costs of living of workers, he said, adding that the government should seek assistance from the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Organization.

“The wage level ultimately agreed upon requires data, analysis and participation; not repression,” Subedi said. “[T]he government of Cambodia must work to ensure that the national minimum wage is set at a level sufficient to provide all workers and their families with a decent standard of living.”

On Wednesday, union leaders announced that a government-commissioned study conducted by manufacturers, unions and authorities found that $157 to $177 a month is necessary for an average worker to meet his daily necessities — an amount that far exceeds the government-proposed $95.

Finally, expressing concerns for the threats union leaders and workers have faced for their involvement in industrial action, Subedi also said authorities should immediately release on bail the 23 workers and activists who had been detained during the protests and that trade unionists should be able to work in “a climate free of intimidation and risk” to their personal security or lives.

“Change is coming to Cambodia faster than many had anticipated,” he said. “The challenge for the current political leadership within both of the main political parties is to embrace change and to find a way to manage it in the best interests of the country.”