I was deeply saddened to read the article by Anne Elizabeth Moore titled “What’s the Price of Workers’ Lives in Cambodia?” published on January 17 in the US-based Truth-out.org website.
This story contained an outrageous attack on the Cambodian garment workers demonstration over the minimum wage by a well-known Cambodian blogger, academic and human rights activist Sopheap Chak.
I am used to hearing such arguments from employers as a way to escape from their responsibility to pay workers a decent wage, but I did not expect this from an experienced human rights activist.
Chak, program director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), claimed she has been watching the recent events closely, but disparaged the garment workers' campaign for a US$160 a month minimum wage.
“You have to come up with the data, come up with a reason why $160 now,” she said in an interview for the article which presented the strike as not really being “about the struggle for living wages in the garment factories” but the workers' “bodies put to service toward a larger political agenda” of the opposition politician Sam Rainsy's “bid for power”.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) did join demonstrations by the garment workers since the last week of December but Sopheap ignored the previous two weeks of action by a massive labour movement of garment workers to demand an improvement in their wages and living conditions.
According to Chak, the workers' movement did not provide enough evidence to show that the garment workers cannot survive on the current minimum wage.
But what kind of data do we need to prove that workers cannot survive on the current wage? And who would be qualified to conduct the data collection?
Five years ago, a living wage survey for Cambodia’s garment industry conducted by Dr Kang Chandararoth from the Cambodia Institute of Development Study (CIDS) concluded that the worker’s minimum wage should have been $90 to $120 per month.
The CIDS study “Living Wage Survey for Cambodia’s Garment Industry” elaborated: “The current effective wage in the garment industry of US$79 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.”
That was what Chandararoth found was needed in 2009.
The recent minimum wage demand was also based on the findings of the Labor Advisory Committee taskforce (a tripartite body including government, unions and employers) on a decent minimum wage for workers, which were released on December 16.
This taskforce, formed by the Ministry of Social Affairs on August 7, made the case that wages should now be $157 to $177 per month to meet minimum survival needs.
So there is ample evidence of the poor living conditions of garment workers, who are mostly women, that their current minimum wage is not sufficient to survive on.
Chak goes on to pose the question: Is it only garment workers who deserve such a pay increase? Why not raise the pay for teachers (who are also poorly paid in Cambodia) as well?
I could add to her questions. Why not also look at the pay of the military? Or that of medical doctors? Why do NGOs worker earn much more than civil servants? Should we debate who should get less based on their educational background?
Should we demand that some people have their pay lowered because they are currently paid more than garment workers and others? Of course, that would be ridiculous.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “We should all be able to work and be free to choose which job we want to do. We should be treated well by our bosses and get paid enough so that we can look after our family. If we lose our job, the government should help us until we can find another one. If a man and a woman do the same type of work, they should each get the same pay.
“Everyone who works can join together, if they like to defend their interests.”
What we need to do is to support and join the struggle to improve all people’s livelihoods so they can live in dignity, regardless of whether they are garment workers, teachers, sex workers, the landless, farmers and so on.
[Chrek Sophea is a Cambodian feminist and worker rights activist and former garment worker based in Phnom Penh. Her interview with Green Left Weekly about the violent repression against the garment workers strike can be read here.]