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International Retailers Want Negotiations in Labor Dispute

Cambodian garment workers shout slogans behind barbed wire set up by police near the Council of Ministers building during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. The workers are demanding a raise in their monthly salary from US $160 to $80. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
This week’s statement by major international garment labels, condemning attacks on protesting workers, marked a new precedent in Cambodia’s labor relations. Representatives of the retailers said they are concerned for the safety of Cambodia’s garment workers and want to see peaceful negotiations between unions, factories and the government.

Workers have been on strike for weeks, calling for a raise in the monthly minimum wage to $160 in the nation’s garment factories, which employ up to 400,000 people.

Five people were killed, 40 injured and 23 arrested in crackdowns on striking workers and other demonstrators last week. Many laborers have since returned to work, following strikes that began Dec. 24. But unions are still calling for a raise.

Major retailers, including H&M, Adidas, Gap, Columbia, Puma, Levis and others, signed a joint letter deriding violence against workers.

“We strongly oppose any form of violence, and urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to drive negotiations among stakeholders to peacefully resolve this dispute,” Laura Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for Gap, told VOA Khmer in an e-mail.

Ron Parham, a spokesman for Columbia, said the company was “deeply troubled” by recent events and has urged the government and its labor advisory committee to set a minimum wage based on “international good practices.”

“We believe that every worker has the right to work in a safe and secure environment and to associate, organize and bargain collectively in a lawful and peaceful manner without penalty, interference or fear,” he said. “This includes the right to negotiate a raise in the minimum wage.”

None of the companies contacted by VOA Khmer said they would cease sourcing goods from Cambodia if the minimum wage is not met or violence against workers continues.

“H&M remains committed to Cambodia as one of our key sourcing countries,” said Anna Eriksson, a spokeswoman for the company. “As a key buyer in Cambodian garment industry, we will continue to encourage all relevant parties to renew negotiations and to come to a mutually-agreeable solution to this conflict.”

Representatives of companies Adidas and Puma said they stood by the contents of a Jan. 7 open letter to the government, unions and manufacturers, urging peaceful negotiations and restraint.

Garment exports account for some $5 billion annually, but workers say they cannot live on the current minimum wage of $80 per month.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents factories, originally said a wage increase was not possible and that factories would move to other countries if workers continued to strike.

But in a conciliatory gesture, Ken Loo, secretary-general of the association, said recently that factories would abide by a wage increase if it were officially put in place by the government.

No new date for negotiations has been set. Contacted Friday, Labor Secretary Oum Mean said he was “busy” and could not discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, Cambodian workers in South Korea this week held their own demonstrations in solidarity with Cambodia’s laborers, calling on the government to investigate last week’s shootings and hold accountable those responsible.