Proposal Aims to Bring Workers’ Voices to Negotiating Table

A proposed project hopes to channel the widespread use of mobile phones among factory workers to bring the voice of the 600,000 Cambodians employed in the crucial garment sector into future wage negotiations.

The project, which would collect information about working hours, conditions, wages and expenses of garment workers, is seeking to win a share of a $130,000 award from the Innovating Justice Forum’s Living Wage Innovation Challenge.

Spearheaded by Jason Judd, a former technical specialist for the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Cambodia, the project aims to “collect and provide critical data to strengthen the voices of Cambodian garment workers in wage negotiations.”

“Our innovation engages tens of thousands of garment workers directly to help contribute the reliable and up-to-date wage data workers need to strengthen their voice in upcoming living wage debates,” Mr. Judd’s proposal says.

Unions and factory owners have already begun initial talks over a new minimum wage in the $5 billion industry. The Labor Advisory Committee is scheduled to make its recommendation to the government in October, with a new floor wage set to come into effect in January.

The project aims to put forth a collective workers position despite a labor movement that is infested with corruption and severely fractured, even within individual factories.

Using the Labor Voices SmartLine, garment workers will be able to place free calls to provide information on their wages, hours worked, rent and bills as well as health and safety issues they may have.

This data would be collected and updated on a monthly basis, in addition to “deeper analysis on a semi-annual basis,” all of which could be found on a dedicated website.

Workers currently earn a minimum of $100 a month, but many work overtime in order to take home extra money in what labor advocates say are trying times, as inflation and living costs continue to rise faster than incomes.

After a number of unions led a nationwide strike for a $160 minimum wage late last year, which ended in bloodshed when military police shot dead at least five protesting workers on January 3, unions say they have lowered their demand this year to a $150. The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia is insisting on new wage of $110, in line with the government’s plan to incrementally raise the floor wage to $160 by 2018.

Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser for the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia program, said on Friday that Mr. Judd’s project would give all parties better information to form the foundation of wage negotiations.

“We hear people throwing around all sorts of figures that are not necessarily accurate. Accurate, realtime information from workers is the best way to get that data,” she said.

“The question that people discuss is, when you are having these wage discussions, how much does a worker take home every month? And that is where you get wildly different numbers in the public domain,” Ms. Tucker added.

Estimates on the average take-home pay of workers range from about $130 a month to more than $170 a month.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said such a project would be helpful only if workers are actually engaged in it.

“It would be helpful in a way to have the voices and experiences of garment workers in wage negotiations,” he said.

“But for me, I don’t know how many would know what number to call.”

Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights organization, said the project could help build momentum behind efforts to ensure that workers, and the unions that represent them, have their legal rights at the negotiating table.

“In terms of collective bargaining, the more details the better,” he said. “But it’s also a question of getting the industry to change its mindset and allow for proper collective bargaining to take place.”

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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