In a tiny market on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, 19-year-old Mech Ra stood on a recent day counting out her money to buy cheap fish she would have to use in multiple meals. The economic crisis meant her overtime wages have been cut for the past six months, and Mech Ra was doing the best she could with her $50 monthly salary.
“I can hardly survive on my own,” she told VOA Khhmer. “And I have no money to send back home.”
Mech Ra is not alone.
A recent survey by the Cambodian Garment Workers for a Living Wage Committee found that an average worker spends $72 per month, while earning around $79 in the same period, overtime included. Without overtime, the average worker earns $67 per month, the survey found.
“Without overtime, such as during economic downturns, a worker’s earnings are not sufficient to cover basic living expenses,” the committee said.
Choun Momthol, a spokesman for the group, said 70 percent of Cambodia’s factories have cut off overtime work, creating uncertainty in the sector.
“Now workers can’t survive, or they will run away, and thus the stability of the garment industry is not secured,” he said.
The garment sector has been hard hit by the global financial downturn.
Garment exports dropped 38 percent in the first quarter of 2009, a value of $280 million, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
Exports to the US alone fell 48 percent in that period, followed by a drop of 20 percent to Europe and 18 percent to Canada.
Investment in the sector has fallen 61 percent, and more than 60,000 workers have been laid off.
The Living Wage Committee called for wages of at least $93 per month, without overtime, “to ensure that workers can earn enough for a decent living.”
However, Oum Mean, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Labor, denied the findings of the report and said a demand for higher salaries could be dangerous for the sector.
“It is not really correct to say it has become worse,” he said of workers’ living conditions. “If we make demands that are too high, sometimes they can’t accept this and that will become a disaster.”
The Living Wage Committee will send its study to the Ministry of Labor and companies to ask for salary increases at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, when it believes the economy will improve.
Economist Kang Chandararoth, president of the Cambodia Institute of Development Study, who conducted the research, said it would be difficult to ask for better wages at a time of economic crisis. But workers may benefit from the study as long as the economy grows.
Kanwarpreet Singh, a factory owner, said his company hasn’t reduced its orders since the crisis. He didn’t oppose the demand for higher wages, he said, but he would follow Cambodia’s labor law.