Cambodia’s Garment Workers Fight for $100 Monthly Wage Amid Killings and Building Collapses
compiled by Rawlinsview New York–May 25, 2013
Below are a series of links to articles from Al Jazeera, The Militant and the website of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The stories below give a picture of workers fighting to earn just 100 dollars per month amid conditions of a targeted murder of a union leader and deadly working conditions.
Readers who have more information about these struggles are encouraged to post or comment.
In [Cambodia] Wage Talks, Factories Refuse to Budge
By Phorn Bopha – March 1, 2013
Negotiations for a minimum wage increase between garment factory owners and union leaders continued on Wednesday at the Ministry of Social Affairs with the factory owners refusing to top their initial offer of an $11 hike.
During negotiations on Tuesday, factory owners offered to increase the monthly wage from the current $61 to $72, a far cry from the $120 figure the unions had asked for.
Though the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) refused to budge from its offer on Wednesday, the unions lowered their demands, asking for $100 instead.
“We wanted to be flexible with our position,” said Chuom Momthol, president of the Cambodia Confederation of Trade Union, after the two-hour negotiations on Wednesday.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, pointed out that GMAC’s proposal of $72 was really only an increase of $6, as the other $5 is actually a new government-mandated health benefit.
“This [$100] is our final figure. If we cannot get this amount, it will be hard,” Mr. Thorn said. “If this doesn’t work, we will meet up and perhaps hold a demonstration.”
Nang Sothy, vice chairman of the Labor Advisory Council, said that with more than 750,000 workers in Cambodia’s garment and shoe factories, even a $1 increase would cost manufacturers $750,000 a month, making it impossible for the factories to make a profit.
“Just a dollar increase is around $750,000 increased in a month, and in one year, we will increase around $4 million,” he said, adding that this amount does not yet factor in overtime.
“We wish to organize a working group for all the parties concerned to sit down. When we can find out the effects of $90, or $100, or $120, then we can [put this wage] into effect,” Mr. Sothy said, adding that the unions’ claim that factories make enough to pay workers $120 a month is not true.
“We should sit down together and see really how much [the factories] make,” he said.
Rewrite © 2013, The Cambodia Daily
Vol. 77/No. 21 June 3, 2013
Fights by Cambodia garment workers
grow amid bosses’ deadly profit drive
BY EMMA JOHNSON
Bosses’ profit-driven disregard for workers’ lives killed three and injured 34 in two factory building collapses in Cambodia less than one week apart.
“We are not surprised when they cave in, they are jerry-built buildings that owners put little money in,” said Say Sokny, general secretary of the Free Trade Union of Workers in a May 21 phone interview from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The first factory collapse occurred May 16 about 30 miles south of Phnom Penh at the Taiwanese-owned Wing Star Shoes, which employs 7,000 workers and produces shoes for Asics. A mezzanine used for storage collapsed under weight it wasn’t designed to bear. Three workers were killed and 11 injured, although 50 were caught in the wreckage.
Yarn Neat, an assistant stock manager, told the Wall Street Journal that the floor had started shaking when she helped load materials into the mezzanine a week earlier and that she was afraid to walk under it. She had raised her concerns with superiors, who did nothing.
In March workers at Wing Star Shoes stopped work and blocked the main road for one hour, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Another 23 workers were injured during lunch May 20 as the shoddy building that housed the break room at Hong Kong-based Top World factory in Phnom Penh collapsed into a lake. The company produces for Swedish fashion giant H&M.
“Wages and health and safety are the most important issues for workers here,” Sokny said. “The working conditions are so bad that workers often faint on the shop floor because of heat, lack of ventilation, malnutrition, chemical exposure and long workdays.”
In January the Labor Ministry reported that more than 1,600 workers fainted at some 20 factories last year. The announcement came after the Free Trade Union gave the figure of 2,107 workers at 29 factories.
Strikes and other actions demanding wage raises and improved conditions are numerous. According to the FTU, some 85,000 workers at 101 factories were involved in strikes and other actions last year.
“It’s the only powerful tool we have,” Sokny explains. “We strike and do actions all the time. That’s the only way we can win anything.”
In December the Kingsland factory, which produces underwear for Walmart and H&M, closed and laid off workers without paying wages and severance. Starting Jan. 3 as many as 200 workers camped outside the plant in Phnom Penh to stop the company from moving machinery and other assets before workers were fully paid. On Feb. 27, 82 of the workers launched a hunger strike. Two days later Walmart and H&M agreed to a $200,000 settlement.
“We decided to go on a hunger strike to show that we are not workers who can be pushed around,” 26-year-old Sorn Sothy, a leader of the action, told Warehouse Workers United March 1. “We are strong, committed and united.”
On May Day garment workers marched to demand a raise in the monthly minimum wage from $80 to $150. The level is set by a Labor Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the government, employers and unions.
“It’s supposed to implement a raise every fourth year,” Sokny said. “But nothing happens unless workers go into action with strikes and other protests. That’s how we won the raise to $80 in March. We need a bigger raise. Workers are hungry. The wages are not enough to pay rent, food and what your family needs.”
On March 28 Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an instruction that workers must stop striking and protesting. But they have continued, including in two actions that demanded reinstatement of workers’ representatives fired by bosses. In one instance some 100 workers gathered outside a provincial police station, demanding the release of seven workers accused of inciting others to protest.
Sokny said the challenge is to win more long-term improvements in wages and working conditions. The vast majority of workers are on short-term contracts, mostly three months. Those who the bosses see as leaders or “troublemakers” don’t get new contracts. New workers are often brought in with contracts that reverse previously won gains.
Until the mid-1990s Cambodia had no garment industry. After an explosive development during the last two decades, the industry now employs 500,000 in more than 500 garment and shoe factories, with an average size of 1,000 workers. More than 90 percent moving into newly created industrial production centers are women from rural villages.
The garment sector accounts for 90 percent of Cambodia’s export income.
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