This guest post was written by Dr. Robert Hanlon, a post-doctorial Research Associate at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia. He is a former editor at the Asian Human Rights Commission and focuses on corporate social responsibility, corruption and human rights in Asia.
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of garment workers flooded the streets of Phnom Penh demanding the government review a $US 5/month wage increase that was approved earlier this summer. Workers are demanding a further increase to the national minimum wage from US$ 61/month to US$ 93/month. The government and manufactures have rejected the demands saying it would reflect negatively on Cambodia’s competitiveness. With many employees refusing to return to work, a Cambodian court has branded the industrial action illegal and has given the green light for manufactures to fire anyone who continues to strike.
“[…] while the minimum wage law is only legally applicable to a small proportion of the entire workforce, it has far reaching implication throughout Cambodian society“
While minimum wage is a critical step for any government in guaranteeing the well-being of society, the Cambodian law only extends to the garment industry. This accounts to roughly 350,000 workers in the apparel and footwear sectors combined (less than 8 percent of the country’s working-age individuals). While Cambodia positions itself as a competitive garment manufacturer, nearly 70 percent of the country’s total workforce still reside in the rural areas and are not privy to the minimum wage law. Nonetheless, this group is highly dependent on remittance sent home by family members who have migrated to the city looking for work in the garment sector. In this sense, while the minimum wage law is only legally applicable to a small proportion of the entire workforce, it has far reaching implication throughout Cambodian society.
Interestingly, most garment manufacturers (especially those associated with International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program) agree that a minimum wage is critical in sustaining a certain quality of life while rightly arguing that workers already earn well-above the current minimum. In fact, the Cambodian Institute of Development Study (CIDS) has found that the average take-home income is $US 86.88/month. While workers may earn this wage, the amount is dependent on significant overtime.
What makes Cambodia exceptional is that the garment manufacturers are right in highlighting the actual take-home is higher than the minimum; however, conveniently disregard the often mandatory overtime requirements placed on workers. Moreover, the ILO estimates that nearly 30 percent of inspected factories do not adhere to the minimum wage requirements while only 8 percent follow the legal requirements governing overtime. When these challenges are factored in, the CIDS estimates garment workers in Cambodia must earn at least $71.99 to sustain their very basic well-being and that of their dependents.
“Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from one of the world’s worst atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge. “
With some manufacturers disregarding the law and the government consistently backing industry, it should come as no surprise why Cambodian garment workers are frustrated. The government’s hard-line approach has not only protected local industrialists at the expense of workers, it has also given tacit approval for the courts and police to intimidate and assault those who challenge the system.
Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from one of the world’s worst atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Nonetheless, it is slowly developing with one of the region’s highest annual growth rates. With the government competing for market-share with countries like China and Bangladesh where costs are low and quality is high, it remains unlikely that plight of Cambodia’s garment workers will be heard anytime soon.
Nonetheless, in a country where 30 percent of the population is still living on less than 50 US cents a day, we may take some solace in witnessing the determination of the Cambodian people to organize and reject the abject poverty inflecting so many of its communities.