If there was any doubt about the present warmth in the often tense relations between the Cambodian and Thai militaries, a recent meeting between the two army bosses made a point of putting it to rest.
A week after workers began nationwide strikes over the government’s decision to raise the garment sector minimum wage by $15 to $95, the Ministry of Labor announced Tuesday that it would now increase the monthly wage by an additional $5, to $100.
However, the leaders of six nongovernment aligned unions, who have led thousands of garment factory workers in demonstrations this week demanding a $160 minimum wage, rejected the $100 offer.
In a statement signed by Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, the government also announced that the wage raise for garment workers must be implemented beginning in February, rather than April, as was initially planned for the $15 increase.
In the past nine months, the government has increased the minimum wage in the garment sector by 64 percent, from $61.
Prak Chanthoeun, director-general of the General Department of Labor Conflict at the Ministry of Labor, said that the additional $5 raise was made in order to appease striking workers, who have held mass demonstrations for the past two days in front of the ministry on Russian Boulevard.
“His Excellency Minister [Ith Sam Heng] made the decision to change the minimum wage because he wants to stop the protests,” Mr. Chanthoeun said.
Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia, said the offer fell short of $160 per month.
“We see that the government has relaxed its stance toward finding a solution, but we cannot accept this decision because the increase was very small,” Ms. Nhim said.
“We will keep our stance demanding $160 and we will continue to protest if the government doesn’t agree with the workers’ demands,” she said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said that the association, was not consulted over the minister’s unilateral decision to raise the minimum wage by $5.
“I think it will make things worse,” Mr. Loo said, declining to explain how.
“We don’t know what’s happening anymore,” he added.
Mr. Loo said earlier this week that efforts by workers to lobby the Ministry of Labor to increase wages were futile, as only the Labor Advisory Council, a tripartite body that also includes representatives from GMAC and labor unions, can approve changes in the minimum wage.
A letter from the Council of Ministers to the Labor Ministry, dated Tuesday, suggested that the leaders of unions who continue to demonstrate should have their union licenses revoked and face legal action in court.
Mr. Chanthoeun at the Labor Ministry said that he was optimistic that hundreds of factories that have closed due to the ongoing labor unrest would reopen on Thursday, allowing an estimated 600,000 employees to return to work.
“Authorities will take strong action against any person if they cause interruption to other people who want to work or destroy public and factory property after the factories reopen,” he said.
GMAC issued an open letter on Sunday claiming that the six non-government aligned union leaders were responsible for “destroying factory property, threatening workers who want to work” and “inciting workers to strike.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, a local NGO, said that intimidation of union leaders through the courts would not be an effective strategy to break the garment industry strikes.
“If we examine the [garment sector labor] movement at the moment, the workers stand up on their own, not because of the unions mobilizing them,” Mr. Tola said.
“Workers actually need the wage increase,” he said.
“The unions also have consequences—if they agree and stop people from taking to the street, the union might lose members,” Mr. Tola added.
Jill Tucker, a technical adviser at the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program, said that further negotiations, not legal action against unions, would be the most effective way to calm the labor unrest.
“In terms of revoking registration of trade unions…I think that would be a very controversial step,” she added.
Mr. Loo said that the union leaders organizing the demonstrations must be held responsible for the behavior of their members.
“They wouldn’t be [legally responsible] if they had not organized demonstrations, but they organized these demonstrations and these activities stemmed from these demonstrations,” he said.
“Are they directly responsible? Absolutely,” he added.
Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said she believes the government would not actually follow through with using legal action against union leaders.
“I think this is just a threat, but we are not worried about that. We will continue protesting until we are successful,” she said.
Union representatives said that demonstrating workers temporarily blocked five national roads Tuesday morning, and thousands of workers once again held a mass demonstration outside of the Ministry of Labor, blocking Russian Boulevard throughout the day.
Workers blocked national roads 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 for up to three hours beginning at 9 a.m., according to union activists.
Chum Soklin, who was among 60 workers from Evergreen Garment Co., Ltd. who blocked National Road 5, said that she wanted workers at the nearby Golden Mile (Cambodia) Limited factory to join demonstrations calling for a $160 monthly wage.
“We have blocked National Road 5 in order to call workers inside [the factory] to come out and join our protest because we are not satisfied with the $15 raise,” said Ms. Soklin.
More than a thousand workers who had spent the day protesting in front of the Labor Ministry marched down Russian Boulevard shortly before 3 p.m.
Although municipal police standing behind razor-wire barricades blocked a similar march Tuesday to the Council of Ministers building, workers Tuesday were allowed to march unimpeded to Freedom Park, but were followed by about 300 military police in full riot gear.
Acting Phnom Penh police chief Mok Chito said that as long as protesting workers remained orderly, police would continue to allow them to demonstrate.
“We will not take action for normal marches that do not cause violence or insecurity, because that is the right [of the workers],” he said.
“But we will take action if they cause chaos in the city, because this is the duty of the police.”
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)
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