Independent Unions Raise Minimum Wage Demand

A group of independent unions say they will push for a new monthly minimum wage of $207 for garment workers when three-way negotiations with the government and factories begin in earnest next week.

The number comes from an in-dependent study that a group of labor rights groups commissioned last month to find out how much the country’s 700,000 garment workers were spending, in order to help unions decide how significant a raise to the current minimum wage of $128 to ask for. On Friday, DC Research came back with a preliminary median figure—the middle number among the 745 workers it surveyed—of $207.50.

William Conklin, country director of the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, which helped support the research, said $207.50 would not necessarily be the figure that all of the unions—some of which are aligned with the government—would ultimately agree to put forward in the coming negotiations. The talks start next Monday.

“Two hundred and seven is the median based on what workers said they tended to spend in a month” including the money they need to cover their living expenses and what they send home to support their families, he said.

“They’re going to figure out how they want to use that,” he added of the unions.

DC Research would neither confirm nor deny the figure, but plans to release the full findings of its study this week. The study is expected to include a breakdown of how garment workers are earning their pay, for example how much is coming from their base wage compared to overtime and bonuses.

“The whole picture has not emerged yet,” Mr. Conklin said. At the very least, he added, some unions may use the results to bolster the $177 minimum wage they pushed for last year.

Ath Thorn, who leads the largest independent union in the country, said he and a handful of like-minded union leaders had already decided to make $207.50 their starting position.

“We will use this number to negotiate with the factories, because we cannot use just any number without grounds,” he said. “This number is the basic living cost; if we wanted the workers to live with dignity, it would be even higher than this.”

Union leader Yang Sophorn said she also supported the figure and that about seven unions had agreed to push for $207.50 so far.

A broader group of unions, including those who typically side with the government’s much lower wage preferences, will meet on Wednesday in the hope of coming up with a number they can all agree on.

Mr. Thorn said he doubted they would reach a consensus, however, and that the independent unions might strike out on their own with their demand for $207.50 if they failed. But he also conceded that their own demands would likely moderate as negotiations with the factories moved forward.

“This number is for negotiating; it is not the last number,” he said. “The negotiations will depend on reality.”

The Labor Ministry, which is mediating the negotiations, plans to decide on the new minimum wage in October.

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