Garment Workers Hunger Continues
“The request for donations happens all the time from all ministries - bar none.”
Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) secretary-general Ken Loo, 18 October 2014, The Phnom Penh Post
“GMAC just told me it was the corporate social responsibility fund, the sport activity fund. If I join [the Cambodian Country Club], it is a social event, nothing related to economics or this or that. If you have friends you invite for a coffee, you talk – people have the right to talk.”
Director-general for International Trade at the Ministry of Commerce Sok Sopheak, 18 November 2014, The Phnom Penh Post
“When the minimum wage increased from $80 to $100 [last year], the owner of the house increased rent … so I think it will happen again. When the minimum wage was $60, my living conditions were better than now, because at that time, the price of goods was cheap and the rent was only $15.”
Garment worker Ouy Sambunn, 14 November 2014, The Phnom Penh Post
“All the businesses around here are ready to raise the rental price.”
Landlord Im Vathana, 19 November 2014, The Cambodia Daily
“The rent hikes are usually not the result of extra financial burdens for landlords. I think it’s pure profit for the [landlords].”
Economist Srey Chanthy, 14 November 2014, The Phnom Penh Post
It must be hunger that drives garment workers’ tenacity and audacity in their struggle for a living wage after years of producing a kind of profits factory owners find it too embarrassed and awkward to reveal. It is a tug-of-war between hunger and greed.
The workers are underdogs that GMAC and allies prefer they remain so. They face a formidable GMAC that speaks in one voice for all employers. On the workers’ side, there are numerous unions that often differ among themselves in opinions and strategies. Some devalue their labour with a misconception that the employers are doing them a favour by giving them jobs, without realising the factories are there for the employers’ maximum profits, not jobs. They bow to constant threats of factory closures although the closures are often followed by new openings as part of a scheme to avoid paying workers’ seniority entitlements.
They face a government that colludes with GMAC. It has bred a mentality that encourages its senior officials and ministries to go begging GMAC for donations. They all find it easier to deny impropriety and conflict of interest associated with donations than not begging.
In return, GMAC enjoys immense influence. It is a single organisation; yet, in the government’s Labour Advisory Committee (LAC) it has as many votes as the number of different unions in the Committee. LAC, which may be an endearing alternative abbreviation of “lackey”, consists of fourteen government officials, seven factory representatives who are GMAC members, and seven representatives of various unions, two of which side with the government and GMAC.
And surprise, surprise… To determine a new minimum wage, sixteen LAC members vote for the government-sponsored $123 figure, i.e. all the fourteen government officials plus two union representatives. Seven members vote for the GMAC proposed $110; it does not take a genius to deduce who those seven are. Two members vote for the union demand of $140. The remaining three do not vote; perhaps, they have no appetite for the farce.
However, while the voting that arrives at the $123 minimum wage is nonsense, it is somehow incomplete. Then enters Premier Hun Sen with an extra $5 to ensure the whole process is a complete nonsense. It is uncertain how he gets to the amount, though.
Anyway, the new minimum wage of $128 will set the factories’ profit back up to about 3.6% of the total revenue. While every dollar counts, the increase is unlikely to bring the industry down to its knees. A likely GMAC reaction is to pay the beggars more to get them to work harder in stalling or minimising future increases.
Obviously, the new minimum is still too far off from the level that a LAC research indicates the workers need for a decent living. Hence, the workers must go hungry a bit longer – maybe much longer if their landlords increase rents and utilities to match a retail oil price that remains unchanged, despite Brent crude oil price drop of 30% in the past five months.
Ung Bun Ang
“Your language is rough, but your ‘piss’ may be sweet.”
MP Chheang Vun describes attributes of a caller to a radio talk back program in which Chheang Vun is a special guest, RFA, 16 November 2014