For Workers, Wage Rise Is Shift From Surviving to Thriving

Sous Sary, a 31-year-old garment worker, works two hours of overtime every day in order to earn enough to live even the most spartan of lifestyles on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

For three simple meals per day, she spends $2.50. On some days, she allows herself to indulge in a few small pieces of meat, spending $5. She pays another $20 in rent and $15 for water and electricity each month, all for a 2.5-by-2.5-meter wooden room in Pur Senchey district with no bathroom or running water. Ms. Sary and her husband, a part-time laborer, cannot afford a mattress or sheets for the wooden bed they share.

Ms. Sary, who sews trousers at the Bright Sky factory in Dangkao district, says her basic monthly expenses alone total $130, while the minimum monthly wage in the garment sector is just $80, meaning that working overtime, while technically optional, is in reality obligatory for her.

Along with hundreds of thousands of other garment workers, Ms. Saray went on strike this week seeking a raise in the minimum wage from $80 to $160 per month. Factory owners have insisted that workers’ demands cannot be met, calling the latter figure so high that it would put them out of business. The government has tried to compromise by offering $100.

But for Ms. Sary, the difference between the government’s offer and the workers’ demand is not just mathematical: It is the difference between barely surviving and being able to put some money aside to send her only child, an 8-year-old boy, to college. Her dream is for the boy to grow up and become a doctor, but she knows this goal is out of reach for the son of a garment worker, so she clings to the hope that he will one day be a nurse.

“In my home district, there is a shortage of medical staff,” she said. “I want him to be a nurse so that he can help other people in my district.”

In a survey of garment factory workers conducted in mid-2013, local human resources company HR Inc. painted a different picture of workers like Ms. Sary. The average production floor worker, HR Inc. said, made $178 per month, and was able to send $56 home to their families in the provinces, as well save some money for the future.

Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser for the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia, criticized these figures, saying that garment workers did not come close to earning $178.

“In BFC’s experience, from reviewing payroll in more than 475 Cambodian garment factories, we see that the majority of workers are receiving wages in the range of $120 – $130/month. This includes their base pay, overtime of at least 12 hours per week (six 10-hour days) and all incentives, bonuses and allowances,” Ms. Tucker said in an email Tuesday.

Dave Welsh, Cambodia head of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor advocacy group, said that considering the circumstances and the importance of the industry for Cambodia, workers should already be getting much higher salaries.

“Given the growth, the profit margins for brands and factories in the Cambodian garment sector and the industry revenues of several billion dollars of only 500 factories, on a certain level, it’s ridiculous to discuss this. In any other country, they would be making way more than they are demanding now,” Mr. Welsh said.

In a report released last year, scholars from Stanford University found that the actual wage of workers had decreased over the past decade due to inflation.

“Wages in Cambodian apparel factories have fallen significantly in real terms over the past ten years, while garment workers in some other apparel-exporting countries in the region have seen their wages rise, including in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam,” said the report, Monitoring in the Dark.

Taking inflation into account, the real wages of garment workers had experienced a “significant” drop between 2001 and 2011, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which studied workers’ purchasing power across the region, has said. The WRC has found that by 2011, real wages had decreased by 22 percent.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade groups and labor rights activists, has suggested an even higher minimum wage than the workers are demanding. They say that $283 per month would ensure that workers live in dignity and would be able to save money for health care, retirement or their children’s university educations.

A minimum wage of $160, plus allowances and overtime, would come close to AFWA’s suggested wage. Workers like Ms. Sary, who have lived in poverty for decades, would be able to improve their families’ livelihoods.

“If we get $160, I can send my son to university so he can have an education and be a nurse,” she said.

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