This post originally appeared as an opinion in The Cambodian Herald on January 26, 2014
Deciding on a proper minimum wage is often a contentious debate, in any country, and Cambodia has been no different. The recent labor unrest in the country’s garment-manufacturing sector, which has resulted in large-scale strikes,demonstrations, and most recently violent clashes between protestors and security forces,attests to the difficulties of setting a wage upon which all sides can agree. Many readers have expressed their concerns about the possibility of further unrest and violence, with one person asking, “What can be done to solve the problems between workers and business owners?”
I thought this was an especially important and timely question given the fact that worker discontent remains a flashpoint that could still result in further violent clashes. The killings that occurred several weeks ago cannot be defended, and I urge the government and all other stakeholders to take immediate action to resolve the labor dispute in a way that will return Cambodia to the path of peace and prosperity. Fortunately, I believe there are a number of concrete steps that can be taken to overcome the present deadlock.
First, I feel strongly that using a scientific, evidence-based model to determine a fair living wage for Cambodian workers is critical to resolving the current labor crisis. Scientific principles based on sound economics can inform decision makers and help to identify a wage that is economically sustainable and reflects changes in costs of living, while keeping Cambodia attractive to foreign investors. The International Labor Organization has offered its expertise to the Cambodian government to help develop and implement such an evidence-based system, which would help both to determine what a livable wage for workers is and prevent undue financial burdens on employers. A transparent approach in setting the minimum wage, which can be logically explained and defended, would go far in reducing the number of labor disputes, strikes, and work stoppages, thereby increasing business revenues. I am convinced that providing a livable wage is an investment not only in the workers’ well-being, but also in building a strong middle class, which is the best engine for developing the economy, lowering poverty, and providing more opportunities for all Cambodians. The many world-famous brands that purchase garments and footwear produced in Cambodia share these concerns and recently sent an open letter to the Prime Minister underscoring their support for a fair minimum wage in Cambodia.
I also appeal to all involved parties – garment factory workers, unions, factory owners, and the Cambodian government – to commit to non-violence as the debate over the minimum wage continues. Preserving peace and upholding the rule of law is everyone’s responsibility. The government has a duty to protect all citizens, and it should never use force to stifle any group’s right to assembly, a freedom guaranteed by Cambodia’s constitution. I reiterate my call on the Phnom Penh Municipality to reverse its ban on demonstrations and to respect its citizens’ fundamental rights, such as permitting groups to gather and publicly voice their concerns today and tomorrow. On the other hand, union leaders have a responsibility not to call unnecessary strikes or instigate workers to take illegal actions, such as blocking roads or destroying property. Such activity cannot be condoned, and strikers and protesters must, as individuals, be committed to non-violence and the rule of law when they exercise their rights of assembly and expression.
As also noted in the open letter from the more than 30 international garment buyers, the government’s treatment of the 23 detained factory workers and labor activists will heavily influence the tone of upcoming labor discussions. Labor rights equate to human rights and that means these 23 individuals have a right to due process, access to lawyers, and necessary medical treatment. Beyond these basic concerns, however, I encourage the Cambodian government to give serious consideration to releasing the detainees as a political gesture of goodwill that would foster a more productive environment for resolving the labor tensions.
Finally, during the next round of negotiations over the minimum wage, I urge all parties to engage in an open, honest discussion and seek common ground. Vital to forging a solution acceptable to all is finding a balance between the protection of workers’ interests and creating a business climate that encourages investment and economic growth. This requires an understanding of the common interests between workers and business owners –as workers thrive, so do businesses, and vice versa. If businesses in Cambodia are unable to compete because of high expenses or unpredictable conditions, they will inevitably move their operations elsewhere. For Cambodia’s economy and middle class to keep growing, all parties must address this challenge.
The new Minister of Commerce, His Excellency Sun Chantol, recently shared with me his goal of making Cambodia a Center of Excellence for business practices and competitiveness to attract more foreign investment. I commend him for establishing such a lofty goal and look forward to supporting his efforts in the weeks and months ahead. Instituting positive industrial relations will play a vital role in this effort and help create a stable, attractive environment for business in Cambodia. A significant step in this direction would be a new minimum wage agreement that ends the current labor unrest, as it would demonstrate to the global business community that the government, management, and labor can work together to resolve disputes through compromise and dialogue.
I look forward to working with labor groups, the business community, and the government to support economic development and expand the middle class in Cambodia. In memory of those killed and wounded during the recent clashes, I feel we have a duty to resolve future labor disputes without the use of violence.
Thank you for reading my thoughts on this important issue. Together, I believe we can all make a difference and create a more effective partnership between the United States and Cambodia. I invite everyone to keep sending me questions at AskAmbToddPP@state.gov and leave comments on my blog at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/todd.