In waves of thousands, garment workers in Cambodia went on strike in the days of 13-17 September 2010, finally numbering over 200,000 by the end of the week, according to estimates of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC). The workers had gone on strike after giving notice long in advance, to express their opposition to the government’s decision to implement a new minimum wage of US$61 per month for workers in the garment industry, which would fall below what the workers say is a decent and humane level. In Cambodia, violent repression of public demonstration and union activity is still not unusual; the killing of popular trade union leader Chea Vichea in January 2004 as well as other political killings have still not been brought to justice. In that context the workers’ strike showed huge courage and pent-up demand to work in decent and fair conditions.
With the number of garment workers in Cambodia estimated at 400,000, the great numbers of workers who joined the mass strike reflected the massive support that the cause had, even from those who were not members of the two unions that initiated the strike.
The government through a tripartite mechanism, the Labour Advisory Committee (LAC), had recently approved (on 8 July 2010) a minimum wage of US$61 per month (for regular workers) and US$56 for probationary workers (those on probation from one to three months). Moreover, these levels were to be fixed for the coming four years – until 2014 – regardless of the external changes in prices. The LAC has seven seats each, for unions, employers in the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), and the government – totalling 21 seats; yet despite the form, many of the unions in the LAC are heavily influenced by employers and the government, and the LAC has no mechanism to ensure that the unions which have seats on the LAC really have consulted workers seriously for their views.
The vast majority of Cambodia’s garment workers are paid the minimum wage and it is not uncommon to be paid less. As argued by C.CAWDU and NIFTUC, such low levels violate Article 104 of the Cambodia labour law, which states that the wage must ensure every worker a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity. Based on the research done by Cambodia Institute of Development Study (2009), the minimum wage should be US$93, which is a living wage; and this is the minimum wage level that was demanded by C.CAWDU and NIFTUC. However the GMAC has been adamantly against such a high wage increase and insisted on the validity of the LAC decision.
Cambodia is a major sourcing country in Asia for clothes of the brands The Gap, H&M, Zara (the three top global brands) and many others. The wage for garment workers is among the lowest in Asia. The Cambodian garment industry is a vital income generator for the nation. 70% of the garments produced are destined for export to the United States, to be sold at high prices beyond the reach of any of the Cambodian workers, who at the current increased level could still only earn approximately US$2 per day.
Mr. Ek Sopheakdey, CLC Vice-President gave a speech during the September strike, at Gladpeer Garment Factory (Cambodia) Ltd. Photo: CLC
Dismissals with impunity
More than 1,000 workers had been suspended, dismissed, or threatened with legal action in the aftermath of the strikes. On 28 September, six major union federations and GMAC (the employer federation) met to strike some compromise and keep smooth industrial relations, and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between them. Among the key points of the MoU are:
• A commitment by both parties to abide by the law
• A commitment by minority unions not to interfere with the right of the majority union to engage in collective bargaining with employers.
• An agreement to use the Arbitration Council’s binding arbitration procedures for disputes over rights, allegations of violations of the law (or Prakas) or the existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
• Agreement that there will be no lockouts, strikes, or further claims during the term of the current CBA.
In addition, the MoU (which comes into effect on 1 January 2011) allows both parties to monitor and review the implementation of the agreement. They agree to act in good faith to adhere to the MoU, and if breaches of its terms are suspected they agree to use to take corrective action through dialogue. Yet the MoU has no binding power, and the goodwill presumed from the signing of it did not ensure that employers who are members of the GMAC would immediately revoke their suspensions and dismissals of the workers who had been active in the strike.
Rather, in the following days few of the dismissals and suspensions were reversed, and still large numbers have been suffering from the long period of going without work – placing pressure on the unions to support the laid-off workers.
The ILO has been a supporter of the tripartite mechanism and following the MoU of 28 September, ‘welcomed’ the agreement as a landmark … which provides for substantial improvements in relations between the two parties – i.e. between the unions and GMAC.
The ILO has thus been continuing to lend legitimacy and authority to a body (the Labour Advisory Council) that clearly lacks a mechanism to ensure full consultation of workers.
On 29 September 2010, the government of Cambodia further issued the instruction to companies to withdraw all complaints submitted to courts, stop the dismissal of union leaders and reinstate all dismissed and suspended strike leaders. Yet employers have refused to do so, and there has been no penalty on employers. As is the case for employers in many countries, a law or administrative order which is not enforced with a meaningful penalty is a law or order that is not followed.
Appealing to Buyers
Clean Clothes Campaign, ATNC Monitoring Network, Asian Floor Wage Campaign and other garment worker-supporting campaign groups had sent letters to the major garment brands which buy from suppliers in Cambodia, seeking their support for the US$93 minimum wage and respect for workers’ right to strike; however the brands replied in legalistic terms, denying their influence over their suppliers and the government’s wage-setting process, and insisting, like the ILO, on following the ruling of the LAC.
The Cambodian garment strike has reflected the role that an insufficiently democratically structured tripartite mechanism can have in legitimizing low wages and denying workers’ voices in important labour decisions which affect their lives. Garment brands that benefit from the repressed wages in already low-wage Cambodian garment factories have been able to maintain the façade of bearing no responsibility for the workers, while keeping their entitlement to hefty profits.
Sources: C.CAWDU, ATNC Monitoring Network