October 1, 2015
Cambodian garment workers have been striking and protesting since May, advocating for an increase in their current $128 USD monthly minimum wage.
The International Labor Organization, Human Rights Watch, and international human rights groups have raised concerns over workers being underpaid, overworked, sexually harassed, and discriminated against if pregnant. Moreover, thousands of garment workers have fainted on the job since 2011 due to malnourishment, overwork, and poor air circulation in the workplace. According to a Human Rights Watch report, workers have been ordered to fulfill daily quotas of 1500 clothing pieces, often working until 9 p.m. and receiving only 15 minutes to eat lunch.
Since 2013, workers have clashed with government forces while striking over wage disputes, forced overtime work, and prejudice against pregnant women. In 2014, five workers were fatally shot by Cambodian authorities during industry-wide protests. The firm DC Research recently conducted a survey examining garment workers’ expenses. Funded by the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, and international labor rights organizations IndustriALL Global Union and Solidarity Center, the survey was the first of its kind in six years. Union members interviewed 745 garment workers across Cambodia. Findings revealed that monthly expenditures, including remittances back to families in rural communities, averaged $207.50 USD per person. To keep up with expenses, many workers try to support themselves with second jobs and working overtime.
Cambodia’s 28-member Labor Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet this week to negotiate a newly proposed minimum wage for the country’s 700,000 garment workers. However, the committee’s seven union leaders cannot agree on a recommended wage. Given the recent survey findings, some leaders want to propose a $207 minimum wage, while others are more cautiously proposing an increase of only 10-15 percent. The Labor Ministry’s Spokesman Heng Sour claims that the unions will lose their right to negotiate if the seven members cannot agree on a single proposed rate.
Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), states that the only acceptable increase in wage would reflect the inflation rate, which is less than three percent. He insists that they cannot afford any further increase, given competition from other countries, notably Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia’s garment industry makes up approximately one-third of its national GDP. He also claims that workers take home more than revealed in the survey and dismisses the survey and foreign involvement as malicious and “disruptive.” Labor rights advocates, including William Conklin, Country Director for Solidarity Center, anticipate that an $80 wage increase will not be accepted, especially when union leaders do not have a unified voice nationally. Moreover, it is expected that clothing brands themselves could best influence the wage debate. Representatives from brands such as H&M, Arcadia, and C&A were in the country last week discussing the wage increases, though no information has been released from their meetings. Advocates are concerned that even if the wage increases, landlords and stores in proximity to the garment factories will respond by raising prices.
The minimum wage issue reflects a deeper struggle in the working class, stemming back to the Khmer Rouge regime. During the regime, schools were closed and intellectuals eradicated, in attempts to achieve a classless, agrarian society. Today, half of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 25 and the vast portion of the working class remains undereducated and holds no professional working skills. Many workers, primarily women, migrate from rural towns into Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. These workers endure long, arduous working conditions, often with the priority to send money back to their families.
Negotiations between government, employers, and unions are slated to continue through the week.
Photo credit: World Bank
The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.
Carmichael, Robert. “HRW: Cambodia Failing to Protect Garment Workers.” Voice of America. 12 Mar. 2014.
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