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Few Workers Satisfied, as Small Wage Increase Takes Effect

Garment workers carry food along the Veng Sreng street of Pur Senchey after a long day of working.
Garment workers carry food along the Veng Sreng street of Pur Senchey after a long day of working.

Workers say a new minimum wage that came into effect Jan. 1 is helpful, but not enough. The compromised wage increase, to $128 per month, is far short of the $177 unions had asked for, but it is nearly 30 percent more than workers had been making.

Sitting in a small room, 3 meters square, Orn Thorn, a 45-year-old factory worker, says making a living is tough, even with the raise.

“It is still hard to live on,” she said. “We have to borrow from each other and pay each other back whenever we have money.”

Added to that are worries about a decrease in orders, and therefore overtime work, that has followed labor unrest over the last year.

Like many workers, Orn Thorn spends most of her salary on rent, about $70 per month, plus water and electricity, leaving little left for other necessities.

“I’m afraid that the price of rent will go up,” she said. “I don’t know where else to go, though.”

Food too is a major concern. On a recent day, Orn Thorn had spent 1,500 riel, about $0.30, on spinach, and $1 for 2 grams of pork rib—just enough to make soup for four people.

“I’ve never had dessert or anything like that,” Orn Thorn said. “I only eat the main course in order to save money. My salary is never enough. I eat only rice, never dessert.”

The raise will do little to help her, she said, because there is little overtime to be had. When there is overtime work, she can make up to $170 per month, which is about the money it takes to get by. With strikes and other unrest, including last January, in which five people were killed in a violent government crackdown on strikes, orders have gone down.

“Before I worked extra time, until 8:30 pm,” Orn Thorn said. “Now there aren’t any more clothes to make. I’ve not worked extra time this year.”

Ath Thon, head of Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said buyers are uncertain about Cambodia’s labor force now. Meanwhile, he said, workers can get by on $128 per month only if the price of fuel and food goes down.

“If the government can make the price of food cheaper, this could be enough,” he said. “If the gasoline goes down to 3,000 riel per litter, and the price of the rice and fish decrease by 50 percent, that should be OK for them to survive.”

The garment sector is a major driver of the economy, employing as many as 600,000 people, many of them young women from the impoverished countryside.

Sisters Sin Da Sin Leak both quit school and left their parents to seek work in a factory in Pur Senchey district, outside Phnom Penh, along with two other siblings. They spend as little money as possible, so that they can send some home.

“We’ve had four cans of shells today,” Sin Da, who is 20, said, as she looked at a small bag of snail shells on a recent day. That cost 2,000 riel, about $0.50. “This is enough for four.”

Sin Leak, who is 18, said she skips breakfast and budgets about 2,000 riel a day for lunch.

Living like this, all four siblings are able to send about $300 per month back home to their parents.

But that kind of fiduciary discipline comes at a cost. Recent studies have shown poor health and nutrition among many workers, and factory managers have found themselves dealing with massive fainting spells, one result of poor eating.

Pao Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said workers need more than $150 per month to survive in Phnom Penh—and yet the minimum wage does not even reach that, making it hard on workers.

“The working council found out that it needs at least from $157 to $177 to live in Phnom Penh per person,” he said. “We want from $150 to $160 per month” in minimum wages.

Outside of Phnom Penh, however, some workers are happy. Pum Sokunthy, a garment worker in Svay Rieng, considers himself lucky to have the wage increase. He is able to live with his family, so rent is not a concern. He’s able to save about $75 a month, he said in a recent interview. “If we include other bonuses and extra time working, the pay is better than it was in 2014.”

Still, for most workers in and around the capital, the wage increase is not enough. Orn Thorn, who is a mother, owes relatives about $1,000, and rarely sends money home to her mother and her aunt.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I have to think about life here and life over there. I might have to go back home and do a small business—to raise my kids.”