Government to Conduct Survey on Living Conditions for Garment Workers

Cambodian workers exit their factory as they take a lunch break in Phnom Penh on March 2, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
  • Phoung Vantha
  • July 21, 2020 11:25 AM

The survey, which will be conducted by the Labor Ministry, aims to analyze the impact of the pandemic on Cambodians employed by the garment sector.

PHNOM PENH--The Labor Ministry announced on July 19 that it will conduct a survey across the garment sector to understand how the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has affected the living conditions of Cambodian garment workers.

Two days prior, on July 17, the ministry informed employers and employees of the garment sector that the General Secretariat of the National Council on Minimum Wage—a sub-department of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training—will be investigating the impact of COVID-19.

Entitled “Living Conditions and Effects of COVID-19 on Workers/Employees in the Textile, Garment and Footwear Sector in 2020,” the survey commenced on July 17 and will last until July 31, analyzing a random sample of employees from across the country.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) in June 2020 argued that the minimum wage shouldn’t even be negotiated this year, due to COVID-19 related disruptions to the export-reliant industry. GMAC argued that a rise in the minimum wage would hurt Cambodia’s competitiveness, but legal experts warn failing to negotiate on this matter would be a violation of the labor rights of the estimated 750,000 Cambodians working in garment manufacturing.

Kaing Monika, deputy director of GMAC denied that his association had any involvement in conducting the survey and was only informing factories about the survey.

On July 20, Spokesperson for the Labor Ministry, Heng Sour, also said he was unaware of the methodology the survey would use or how the government would use the findings. He did however confirm that minimum wage negotiations would be going ahead as planned.

A recent report produced by the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), labor rights group CENTRAL and human rights group LICADHO highlighted the immense economic strain that COVID-19 has placed on garment workers—in particular it pointed to high levels of indebtedness to microfinance institutions.

“On average, the combined monthly payments for debt and food expenses exceeded workers’ salaries, resulting in the vast majority of microloan borrowers eating less food to be able to repay,” the report reads. 

While the authors of the report stressed that their findings were not to be taken as a representation of either the garment sector of the microfinance industry in Cambodia as a whole, the report suggested that COVID-19 has heightened the financial burdens placed on Cambodia’s poorest.

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor Heng Sour said that the government’s own assessment of the pandemic’s impact on garment workers’ economic wellbeing remains an internal matter for distribution to National Salary Council members only. He declined to explain the sample size, the timing of the survey or what it would help the government determine, but said that the survey would be distributed randomly.

“We support this survey,” said Yang Sophorn, president of CATU. “But we need to look at the main purpose of the study in order to use it to benefit the workers or the private sector?”

Sophorn raised concerns that the lack of transparency in the Ministry of Labor’s methodology could see the government’s survey being used to suppress workers’ rights in relation to the upcoming minimum wage negotiations.

“This is something to think about, if helping workers is a good thing and an obligation of the state,” said Sophorn. “If this study is only to be discussed by the Labor Council or for debating workers’ wages, then perhaps the minimum wages will not be raised next year.”

She warned that if the survey was used to deny Cambodian garment workers the right to negotiate over next year’s minimum wage, it would be bad.

“This would show that the government does not protect the rights of workers, but just helps the private sector,” she concluded.

Currently, the minimum wage for Cambodians employed in the garment sector is $190 per month following negotiations that concluded on Sept. 20, 2019, representing an increase of 4.4 percent from the 2018 minimum wage of $170 per month.

This was following the annual minimum-wage consultation guaranteed under the Law on Minimum Wage. But despite the legal provisions supposedly covering a range of sectors, the reality is that only the garment sector benefits from this.

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