PHNOM PENH— Representatives from some of the world’s largest fashion brands and the leader of one of the world’s biggest union organizations met this week with Cambodian officials and local clothing manufacturers to demand better treatment and improve workplace safety for the country's estimated 600,000 garment workers.
Garment manufacturing is Cambodia’s main foreign exchange earner, with $5.5 billion in exports last year, mainly to the United States and the European Union.
But while revenues have risen in a decade, real wages have declined. Last year, workers fed up with having to work ever-longer hours just to get by clocked nearly 900,000 strike days, mostly in an effort to raise the minimum wage.
In December, the government hiked the minimum wage from $80 to $100 a month, but some unions and many workers wanted $160. As a result, thousands stayed on strike.
In early January, four workers were killed and 23 arrested during the protests. The killings made international headlines and proved a public relations problem for brands such as H&M, The Gap, Puma and Walmart.
The IndustriALL Global Union is an organization of international unions with 50 million members in 140 countries. Its general secretary, Jyrki Raina says the $100 minimum wage is the key issue.
“It is not a living wage. And that is why people work 10-14 hours a day. It is very important to find a path now towards a living wage that covers the basic needs and makes it possible for people to have a life,” he said.
Raina, who attended this week’s meetings between brands, government, and local manufacturers, says brands delivered three key messages to the government; that they are willing to pay their subcontractors more to ensure workers receive a higher minimum wage, that the government must work faster to set up a mechanism that reviews the minimum wage on a regular basis and in a realistic manner, and that it stops using violence and the courts against workers and unions.
"The brands are very dependent on their image," he said. "Consumers are asking questions, and it is not good news for sales or reputation if the media reports, as they regularly do, about violations of workers’ rights, slave labor wages as Pope Francis called them, and otherwise long working hours and unsafe and unhealthy work places. That is one thing, of course. The second thing is that the brands need to be sure of the stability of the sourcing, so if there is unrest then that of course causes problems because they do not get their products."
The meetings Monday and Tuesday were closed to the media, but a Ministry of Labor spokesman said Monday the government told the brands the courts were only acting against unionists and workers who had broken the law.
Union leader Ath Thorn says the meetings offer a chance to improve the sector’s image and stability, which would benefit workers and brands. He adds, Cambodia should act fast to benefit from problems afflicting the region.
“In this situation now, Vietnam and Thailand have a lot of problems. If the government can take the opportunity to be better in Cambodia, maybe we can get more business in Cambodia,” he said.
The government has agreed to meet manufacturers and unions next month to discuss an improved wage-setting mechanism.
Meanwhile, the highly criticized trial of 23 unionists and workers arrested in January ended last week, with the court due to hand down a verdict Friday.