As a new round of Cambodian wage negotiations approaches this month, major U.S. and European retailers who source from the country say they will be watching the talks carefully and want to see fair pay for workers.
Representatives of the brands like Gap, Levi Strauss, and Columbia say they want a proper wage that affords Cambodian workers adequate food, housing, clothing, medical care and social services.
In an email to VOA, Amber Rensen, a spokeswoman for Levi Strauss & Co., said “To this end, we encourage governments to establish inclusive and transparent processes for regular minimum wage setting to ensure workers’ needs are met in the growing economies in which we source our products."
Many Cambodian workers have begun midday strikes in support of a wage increase to $177 per month, an amount that factories have said they cannot afford.
Union leaders, factory representatives and government officials met Sept. 26 to negotiate a wage increase, but talks failed after factories said they could only increase wages to $110 per month, a slight increase over the current $100 per month.
Rensen said that when a new wage is set, Levi Strauss will make sure suppliers provide workers the new rate, “as well as required overtime premiums and benefits.”
The Gap, too, said it wants to see positive changes in Cambodia’s industrial sector - a major driver of the economy and employer of up to 600,000 people that did $4.4 billion in trade in 2013.
“We’ve urged the Cambodian government to address worker unrest and wage concerns, as well as the establishment of a regular dialogue between garment workers, factory owners and the Cambodian government to resolve future wage disputes,” said The Gap spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson.
The clothing company Columbia told VOA it has sent two letters to suppliers urging them to protect workers and provide decent pay.
“We continue to actively monitor the situation and work collaboratively with other stakeholders to affect sustainable progress on these important issues,” Columbia spokesman Ron Parham said in an e-mail to VOA Khmer.
However, none of the U.S. companies would provide specifics on how high they think wage level should be.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents factories, has said repeatedly that a minimum wage that is too high will drive investors away.
But European companies C&A, Inditex, N. Brown Group, Tchibo, Next, Primark, New Look and H&M sent a joint letter to the government just days before unions and employers met, stating their support for wage negotiations.
“As a brand community, we have maintained a longstanding commitment to Cambodia by sourcing from the country for many years,” the group said in a joint statement, a copy of which was shared with VOA Khmer. “Over this time sourcing volumes from the signatories of this letter have been increasing.”
Anna Burger, former president of Change to Win, a U.S. labor-organizing coalition, said the increased salary will not increase prices much for U.S. consumers, but would only add pennies to their cost.
“I think the impact of increased minimum wage on the consumers across the globe is insignificant [compared] to the benefit that will resolve to keep the workers in Cambodia,” she said. “And the ability for workers to have enough to sustain their families and send their kids to schools has a huge impact on global stability, global economic development.”
Unions have warned that workers will next petition foreign embassies to seek more pressure if an Oct. 10 meeting does not bear fruit.
“Cambodia’s issue is a universal one,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union.“It affects the reputation of buyers for buying cheap products that has led to death, imprisonment, and wounding of workers. Therefore, buyers have to get involved to solve this problem.”
Earlier this year, garment factory worker mass protests led to violence when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least four.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.