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Cambodian Workers Try New Bargaining Strategy: Refuse Overtime

Despite some signs of progress in early January, the ongoing dispute between Cambodian factory owners and workers over wages continues to grow ever more acrimonious. Massive protests are scheduled for mid-March and now labor unions are experimenting with a new tactic: encouraging workers to refuse to work overtime.

According to labor union representatives, at least 100 garment factories in Cambodia will collectively dismiss requests from management to work overtime. Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said, “We don’t know how many workers will boycott the overtime, but if the majority does boycott overtime, I think it’ll have a big affect on the companies.”

Overtime is a common feature of factory employment; most laborers work at east two to four hours of overtime each day, in addition to a standard eight-hour work day. In order to compel factory owners to raise the minimum wage further and improve factory safety, a total of eighteen unions have been encouraging their members to abstain from accepting any overtime.

Cambodian labor unions are also planning another massive demonstration against low wages in March. A consortia of sixteen unions publicized their plans in response to a judicial decision to deny twenty-one incarcerated protesters bail.

Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said, “We are disappointed with the government and the courts because we have given them a lot of time to solve these problems, but they have failed to deal with it. Therefore, it is our turn to take mass action to pressure the government to release the [21 prisoners] and increase worker salaries to $160.”

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Cambodian laborers and factory owners have been locked in an often tempestuous dispute about both wage increases and the increments with which they will be enacted. Initially, the Labour Advisory Committee reported a $15 increase in monthly wages, effective April 1, 2014. Under the newly accepted plan, the minimum wage will rise incrementally over the next five years, lifting it from its current $80 per month to more than  $160 per month. In 2015, the monthly minimum wage is set to increase again by $15, then by $16 in 2016, $17 in 2017 and, finally, $17 in 2018.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), defended the government, claiming that it has been “diligent in enforcing the law.” He was far from conciliatory: “We take this [as] directly classified as a threat, but we can only defer to the government.”

Major retailers who manufacture their apparel in Cambodia have expressed concern over the unrest, as well the government’s heavy-handed response, circulating a jointly-signed letter calling for a peaceful resolution. The letter read, “It is with great concern that we have observed both the widespread civil unrest and the government’s use of deadly force. Our primary concerns are for the security and safety of the workers employed by our suppliers and the long-term stability of the Cambodian garment industry.” The signatories included representatives from H&M, Inditex, and Levi Strauss & Co., among others.

And on January 17, President Obama signed the U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act, which halts any aid to Cambodia other than food and health related goods until the government conducts an investigation of parliamentary elections in July, which some say were tainted by corruption. In 2012, the U.S. sent about $70 million to Cambodia to finance various kinds of development.

Nevertheless, despite some acute losses resulting from the civil unrest, Cambodia’s export business is still strong. Its apparel exports continue to surge despite political turmoil, rising 20 percent to $5.52 billion for 2013, according to its Ministry of Commerce. Exports to the E.U. were particularly robust, increasing 28 percent to $2 billion, while its deliveries to the U.S. jumped 7.6% to $2.12 billion.