Unions urge Cambodia to improve labor rights

International labour unions gather in Cambodia to urge government to improve minimum wage and establish better collective bargaining system

Photo by: AA
Photo by: AA

Cambodian workers in a factory

Union and clothing brand representatives from around the world met in Cambodia’s capital Wednesday, aiming to address the country’s minimum wage and push for the establishment of a proper system of collective bargaining.

The global union’s general secretary held a press conference on the sidelines of the two-day closed-door talks, during which he reiterated concerns about the hours worked and wages earned by Cambodia’s approximately 700,000 garment workers.

“We are here to show our support for Cambodian unions in their quite legitimate struggle for getting a living wage,” Jyrki Raina said.

“Even though salaries are increasing steadily, from $128 to $140 early next year, it is still far away from a living wage. That’s why they work at least 10 hours a day,” he added. “Some have serious health problems. Three workers died in factories last year.”

The government and Prime Minister Hun Sen have raised concerns that too much of an increase would drive brands to do production business in other countries, such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, where the minimum wages are below $100 a month.

Cambodian unions initially struggled to unite on a proposed minimum wage in September, ahead of the negotiations in October.

Raina said Wednesday that a key aim for Industriall is to assist its eight Cambodian member-unions to be “able to take action and develop a fledgling bargaining system.”

Raina said the answer is to increase wages “everywhere,” so that workers can pay for “proper food, housing, education for their families and health care.”

As an international body, Industriall represents around 50 million workers.

Raina said it became “deeply involved” in Cambodia’s garment industry – the country’s largest, bringing in $2.8 billion a year -- after five people were shot dead during sector strikes in January 2014.

“That was when we woke up global clothing brands, who are an essential part of the solution,” he said.

He said H&M — the largest brand buyer in the Cambodian market — had sent a representative to the talks, and that it had agreed Tuesday to “guarantee union rights wherever its factories and sub-contractors are located.”

H&M’s media office in Stockholm did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

Concerns have been raised about the impending passage in Cambodia of a Trade Union Law, whose latest draft has not been made publicly available.

Raina said its main targets should be that it is “easy to join and form unions,” and contains provisions for a “rational” collective bargaining system.

Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Suor could not be reached.