Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cambodia: Garment workers fight for a living wage

By Jaya Ramachandran
Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

AMSTERDAM (IDN) - Some 68,000 garment-factory workers in Cambodia are demanding a monthly wage of 93 U.S. dollars. The workers, most of whom are women, say that a recently-established minimum wage of 61 dollars fails to cover basic living expenses and does not meet living wage standards.

They started a week-long strike on September 13 to lend weight to their demand, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) and National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), with around 75,000 members were calling upon the Cambodian employers association to enter into negotiations.

In the run-up to the strike, there have been numerous incidents of violence, threats and intimidation against union members. Government officials as well as employers have threatened union leaders with criminal charges and imprisonment.

Ath Thorn, President of the Cambodia Labour Confederation (CLC), said in a media release: "The right to strike and collective bargaining is well established in Cambodian law as well as in international human-rights law. We call upon the government, employers and international brands to respect these rights and pay Cambodian workers a living wage."

The Clean Clothes Campaign, an international labour-rights network, has contacted major international buyers to step up their ethical programmes to ensure that workers receive a living wage. The ten most-important foreign buyers are; GAP, H&M, Levi Strauss, Adidas, Target, Sears Holdings Corp, (Sears, Kmart) Children’s Place, Charles Komar, The William Carter, VF Jeanswear Ltd.

The CCC is encouraging buyers to continue sourcing from Cambodia and ensure that all workers in their supply chain receive living wages. The Clean Clothes Campaign is working to improve conditions and support the empowerment of workers in the global garment industry. The CCC has national campaigns in 13 European countries with a network of over 250 organisations worldwide.

The CCC has also called upon key brands sourcing from Cambodia to immediately contact their suppliers and the employers' association and encourage them to enter into good-faith negotiations with CCAWDU and NIFTUC.

"Garment workers earning the minimum wage live in dire poverty, often barely able to buy healthy and nutritious meals," says Jeroen Merk of the CCC." The need for action is highlighted by the fact that in August hundreds of garment workers fainted in Cambodia as a result of malnutrition."

CCC's Ineke Zeldenrust said: "The Police forcibly stopped workers from attending rallies, while government officials and employers have threatened union leaders with criminal charges and imprisonment. The Cambodian government and employers association should immediately cease any interference with, threats against and intimidation of trade unionists."

The CCC has also expressed their concern about the safety of workers in exercising trade union activities. In recent months, requests for public meetings and demonstrations have been refused by Cambodian authorities.

The number of strikes to request higher wages in response to higher cost of living has continuously increased over the past few years. Trade unions that demand higher wages, themselves, are unsure what a suitable wage level should be.

Up to now, there has been no research on whether the prevailing effective wage in the garment industry is a living wage. In order for negotiation or dialogue on wage to be successful for both workers and employers, Germany's Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), in cooperation with TWARO, commissioned the Cambodia Institute of Development Study (CIDS) to conduct a living wage survey for the garment industry. The survey was carried out from December 2008-January 2009.

A total of 353 garment factory workers from 47 factories in Phnom Penh and surrounding suburbs were interviewed: 91 percent female and 9 percent male. The average age was 24 years old; the youngest interviewee was 15 years old and the oldest 47 years.

Seven out of ten of the interviewees are single, while 20 percent are married and roughly 9 percent are widows. 96 percent are migrants, typically from Kampong Cham and Prey Veng provinces. More than half of the interviewees (51 percent) work as a sewer at the factory.

On average, interviewees have worked at the current factory for 3.1 years and have 3.5 years of work experience. Interviewees typically come from a 4-member household, including the interviewee, of which 2 people are income earners. The other income earner is typically a farmer.

The survey came to the conclusion that current effective wage in the garment industry of 79 dollars per month, which includes overtime and other allowances, is not a living wage.

"If we exclude overtime, which is currently being reduced by factories at the moment because of the economic crisis, the average effective wage is US$67 per month. Overtime has played a very important role in enabling workers to cover their basic expenses and maintain a minimum living standard.

"This practice means that the living standard of garment workers is highly dependent on the economic situation. If the economy is in a good state, they get overtime, and their living standards improve; if the economy is in a bad state, overtime is reduced and the living standards of workers deteriorate even if they are employed.

"This set up provides no security for a decent living standard, which undermines industrial relations and the stability of the garment industry. To make the environment conducive for both employers and workers, there is an urgency to institutionalize the living wage, which should not be dependent on overtime.

"According to our survey and calculations, the living wage of garment workers should range from at least US$90 per month to US$ 120 per month," concluded the survey, pointing out that a living wage is a wage that provides for decent living for a worker and his/her dependents, within regulated working hours (not including overtime) from one income source, and should allow for some savings.

For over a decade many brands and retailers have considered Cambodia a "safe haven" from reputation risk due to an ongoing factory monitoring program. Many workers have benefited from this project, but the problem of insufficient wages to meet basic needs is yet to be resolved.