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Unions Pushing for Another Wage Increase

A Cambodian garment worker, foreground right, buys vegetable for her diner near a factory after the day's work, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

A Cambodian garment worker, foreground right, buys vegetable for her diner near a factory after the day's work, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Cambodia’s garment factory unions are preparing for another push to increase the minimum wage.

Union leaders say their workers need at least $177 per month in order to keep up with the rising cost of living, in an industry that employs some 600,000 people, by far the largest employment sector in the country.

Representatives of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union are meeting with international associations and international buyers, to persuade them to support the increase.

Coalition president Ath Thorn told VOA Khmer that he and others have traveled across Asia, Europe and even South America over the last few months to find support for the wage increase.

Demonstrations for higher wages in 2013 led to a brutal crackdown in January 2014 that left at least five people dead and dozens injured.

It also led to a wage increase, to $128 per month, though Ath Thorn and others say it was not enough. “$177 is still the number,” he said.

Last month he and his colleagues went to Japan, Brazil, Norway and Sweden, to meet with international associations and global buyers, he said. “In Oslo we met with more than 100 buyers.”

Unions want to see an increase or they will begin gathering in public spaces to demand it, he said, though he added that protest would be a last option. “If peaceful talks don’t work, we’ll meet in front of the National Assembly to show our position,” he said. “And if necessary, we’ll protest.”

The International Labor Organization, meanwhile, says it is helping in data collection for potential wage negotiations, including calculating Cambodia’s cost of living. “We hope that the unions can make use of these data to come to an informed position for the 2016 minimum wage negotiation,” the ILO said in an email.

Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said she has been talking with her union members about their concerns and the salary they need for a proper standard of living.

“We have met with our members and workers who have raised their concerns,” she said. “They cited a raise of their salary,” she said, adding that if the talks do not work, her union may end up protesting.

After last year’s violence, a number of union leaders were put under court monitoring for allegedly inciting criminal activity during the garment worker strikes of late 2013 and early 2014.

Yang Sophorn; Ath Thorn; Pao Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers; Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union; and Rong Chhun, president of Cambodian Confederation of Unions, all have been warned against meeting with other unions or taking part in public gatherings.

The union leaders insist they are innocent, saying that the ban is a trick to make them stop seeking higher salaries. They say fair wages and good conditions are critical to the wellbeing of their members.

Hundreds of garment workers faint every year due to bad factory conditions or simply not eating enough. Factory collapses in recent years have also killed and injured workers. And just last week, 19 garment workers died in a traffic collision, crammed into a small van to save money on their commute to work.

Pao Sina said local unions are asking representatives in the EU, where many clothes are destined, to help with the wage increase, which can improve safety for workers. “They could pay for a truck with less people,” he said.

Workers like Morn Savein, who works in Bavet city, Svay Rieng province, say they need an increase. Her salary is now $129 per month, which must cover living expenses, school fees for her children and travel costs to and from work—a two-hour trip each way. “I spend $20 every month on the truck,” she said.

Morn Savein lost her sister, Morn Savon, who died in last week’s traffic accident. Better salaries might have prevented that, she said.