Category Archives: Migration policy in Cambodia

Unions Displeased With Wage Hike, But Not Enough to Strike

Four of the country’s most prominent unions say they will not strike over the government’s latest rejection of their wage demands for garment workers, making a repeat of the unrest that rocked the garment sector in December and January increasingly unlikely.

But they warned that protests could pick up again if landlords around the factories start raising their rents and utility fees, as they usually do whenever wages increase.

Several unions staged crippling strikes that briefly brought the $5.5 billion garment sector to a standstill when the government rejected their demands for a $160 monthly minimum wage in December last year. The strikes only came to an end after military police shot into a crowd of protesters in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing at least five workers and injuring dozens more.

Unions this time around had lowered their demands to $140, but still came up short when the Labor Ministry last week decided to raise the current minimum wage of $100 to $128.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the largest independent union in the country, said nearly all his factory representatives voted against going on strike at a meeting Friday evening.

Between going on strike, happily accepting the new wage, and objecting to the new wage but opting not to strike, almost all of the roughly 100 representatives at the meeting voted for the third option.

“That means they are not happy, but we will not strike,” Mr. Thorn said Sunday. “So they will try to find another way [to raise the wage], but not a strike.”

He said the union representatives were passing on the sentiments of the garment workers at their factories.

“They say we don’t want to strike because the government will crack down…and they want to try to work through the brands,” he said.

During the negotiations leading up to the Labor Ministry decision last week, some of the international brands currently sourcing from Cambodia promised to pay more for their orders in order to help factories here bear the burden of any wage hike. Mr. Thorn said the unions’ focus now will be to make sure the brands keep their pledge, and pay enough to let the factories pay workers even more than the mandated $128.

The unions also want to ask the government to help keep rent and utility prices down after the new wage comes into effect in January. Landlords around the garment factories typically raise their prices whenever the factories raise their wages, counteracting the benefits of a pay raise.

Mr. Thorn said he was planning to bring together a few thousand of his members in Phnom Penh some time in early December to gather more input on exactly how they want the union to press ahead.

Ken Chhenglang, acting president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia, said her representatives also voted decisively against going on strike—so long as rent, utilities and other costs around the factories did not rise.

“If rent and food prices go up, there will be huge strikes and protests again,” she said. “They [workers] asked our union and the government to take action to stop rent and food prices increasing. The higher wage will be worthless if prices go up. The extra money will just go into the pockets of the landlords.”

Free Trade Union president Chea Mony, who joined the strikes in December and January, said his union would also refrain from striking for fear of triggering another bloody government crackdown.

Union leader Pav Sina, who also joined the last round of strikes, said he was still calling his factory representatives to get feedback from their members. But he said the representatives he had spoken with so far were also reporting little appetite for more strikes.

Like Ms. Chhenglang, though, he warned that their mood could change if landlords try to take advantage of the new minimum wage the way they have in the past.

“If the government and institutions can’t stop prices from increasing, there will be a movement of workers to demand even higher wages, because they won’t have a choice,” he said.

By Mech Dara and Zsombor Peter, The cambodiadaily

Minimum wage set

Vitriol rang from all sides yesterday following a government decision to raise the monthly minimum wage in the garment sector to $128, with labour unions declaring it too little and employer representatives claiming such a large raise could close factories.

The Ministry of Labour’s Labour Advisory Committee (LAC) held a vote yesterday morning and emerged with a figure of $123 as next year’s industrial floor salary – up from the current $100.

A meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen directly after the vote led Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng to raise that figure by an additional $5, to $128, a Labour Ministry statement reads.

Union leaders who battled for $140 remained unsure of whether their members would accept the amount, or if they would be prompted to launch a campaign against the government-mandated figure.

Labour rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed concerns that the move could provoke strikes and cause international brands to pull out of Cambodia.

“I hope that unions will understand, because they joined the discussion, that we cannot meet their demand,” said Sam Heng.

He discouraged demonstrations akin to those after last year’s minimum wage decision, which resulted in arrests, violence and at least five deaths.

“Don’t use demonstrations to push for your demands,” Heng said.

Including transportation, seniority and other bonuses, workers will be able to earn a total monthly salary of between $147 and $156 a month next year, a Labour Ministry statement reads.

Unions were clear on their minimum financial needs, said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) and one of two people who voted for a $140 wage at the LAC meeting.

C.CAWDU members will meet on Sunday to discuss their next course of action. “Until [we receive] $140, I’m not satisfied,” Thorn said. “We will discuss with my members; if my members want to campaign [against the wage], we will.”

Disappointment among unions spread beyond independents to government-leaning unions as well.

The LAC’s vote for $123 was unacceptable, said Chuon Mom Thol, president of Cambodia Union Federation (CUF). But even though the final amount is less than unions’ collective demand, the subsequent $5 addition cushioned the blow, he added.

“Now we’ve got $8 above the poverty line, and next year, there will be another negotiation,” Mom Thol said, referring to the $120 poverty line calculated by the International Labour Organization. Based on information “received from the ground, [CUF] rank-and-file members accept” the $128 wage, he added.

But from the point of view of Cambodia’s factory owners, the hike will prove disastrous.

The 28 per cent increase will bankrupt some employers, said Nang Sothy of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC).

Between “30 and 50 factories” will close, losing jobs for about 50,000 workers, she said, though employers will still abide by the government’s new wage requirement.

Community Legal Education Center consultant Joel Preston scoffed at GMAC’s “scare tactics” which, he said, lacked any evidence. Preston noted consistent growth in Cambodia’s largest export business, despite GMAC’s persistent assertions that wage increases will drive the industry out of the country. Several brands that buy from Cambodia, H&M among them, have already made public commitments to financially facilitate salary hikes.

What the government and brands should worry about, he continued, is possible unrest resulting from the Labour Ministry’s decision yesterday.

“The government is walking a fine line,” Preston said. “I think there’s a real possibility that we could see a repeat of last year; I don’t think the government or the brands can afford that.”

Even without the violence Cambodia experienced in January, brands could fear the worst-case scenario and leave the country proactively, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

“You may see brand pullout based on the fear of what they anticipate,” Welsh said.

Given that brands had publicly committed to paying higher prices to support a living wage, Welsh lamented the LAC’s squandering of a perfect chance to raise wages to a point that would have satisfied workers across the board.

“We had this historic opportunity,” Welsh said.

By: Sean Teehan and Mom Kunthear, the Phnompenh Post

Australia-Cambodia refugee resettlement deal slammed by rights groups

Australia and Cambodia signed a $35 million deal that will see an unknown number of refugees currently housed in Australia’s offshore detention centers resettled in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the agreement in Phnom Penh on Friday, September 26, in a four-minute-long ceremony that saw a tray of champagne flutes crash to the ground as they put pen to paper. After a brief round of applause from their respective entourages, both men ignored media questions and hurriedly left the room.

The secretive agreement, which has been under negotiation since February, has been widely condemned by rights groups and others. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres condemned the deal to resettle refugees from the Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia, adding that he was “deeply concerned” at the precedent it set.

“This is a worrying departure from international norms. We are seeing record forced displacement globally, with 87 percent of refugees now being hosted in developing countries. It is crucial that countries do not shift their refugee responsibilities elsewhere,” he said. “International responsibility sharing is the basis on which the whole global refugee system works. I hope that the Australian government will reconsider its approach,” Guterres added.

Protesters gathered at barricades near Australia's embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday morning to protest the signing of the deal later that day that will see refugees sent from Australia's detention centres to Cambodia(Photo: Carmichael/DW) UNHCR: ‘This is a worrying departure from international norms’

A joint statement handed to the media after Friday’s signing ceremony shed little new light on the issue beyond noting that Cambodia would decide when and how many refugees it would take, and stating that there would be an “initial trial arrangement with a small group of refugees, which will be followed by further resettlement in accordance with Cambodia’s capacity.” It reiterated that settlement would be “on a voluntary basis,” a condition Phnom Penh has insisted upon.

Earlier Morrison told Australia’s ABC network that the deal provided a regional solution to a regional problem, and met the Abbott government’s pledge that “no-one will be resettled in Australia.” He also said there was no upper limit on the number of refugees who might be sent, adding that it currently applies to people at the detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. Around 200 of the more than 1,200 asylum seekers there have been classified as refugees.

Australia has agreed to pay an additional 40 million AUD (35 million USD) in development aid over the next four years to Cambodia, which is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries, with the money purportedly earmarked for projects such as electoral reform, rice milling and land-mine clearance. Australia will also fund the costs of the resettlement process.

But many aspects remain unknown, including how many refugees will come, where they will be housed, whether they will be allowed to work, and how they will access services in a country where provision of services is poor and government-sanctioned corruption is rife.

Controversial

The deal has proved highly controversial in Cambodia and abroad. In Phnom Penh on Friday morning, around 100 protestors petitioned the Australian embassy to scrap the agreement, saying Cambodia is too poor to help others.

Speaking to reporters at the demonstration, opposition chief whip Son Chhay condemned the secrecy that surrounded the drafting process, and warned against using Cambodia “as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees” by using money to buy off “a corrupt government.”

“We believe that this deal not just violates the Refugee Convention, but it [allows] some countries who have money [to be] able to buy off their responsibility towards refugees,” he said. “And [that] could create a bad habit for many countries to follow.”

Protester Son Chum Chuon said he was against the agreement because Cambodia lacks the capacity to handle the refugees and needs to sort out the entrenched problems facing its own people before it can assist others.

“The human rights system [and] the democracy system in Cambodia [are] still poor. That is the reason that some demonstrators want to gather in front of the Australian embassy today,” he said. “In future, if Cambodia [is] stable in democracy, stable in human rights, I am happy to see all those refugees. But now [I'm] not.”

Top secret

The deal has been on the cards since February when the visiting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Cambodia to take in refugees. Both countries subsequently maintained a near-uniform silence on the proposal until Wednesday when Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Morrison would visit Phnom Penh to sign.

In the face of withering criticism, the Abbott government, which was elected in part on the promise that it would not allow more boats carrying asylum seekers to land in Australia, says it wants a regional solution to the issue of asylum seekers, and holds that many of those trying to reach its shores are economic migrants.

News of the signing has caused a storm of protest over the past two days. Opposition politicians in both countries have joined rights organizations, church groups and legal experts in condemnation. Alastair Nicholson, the former chief justice of Australia’s Family Court, described the deal as “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal,” and said it raised serious concerns for the welfare of refugees and their children.

Survivors rest in a village center in Cidaun, West Java prorince on July 24, 2013(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images) Asylum seekers face threats in their home country

Nicholson, who was speaking on behalf of an alliance of organizations including Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia, and Save the Children, said Cambodia’s welfare sector was already struggling.

“It is inappropriate because Cambodia has no capacity within its social sector to take an influx of refugees,” he said. “Immoral, because these vulnerable people are Australia’s responsibility and, while we await the detail, it appears illegal in contravening Australia’s humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families.”

Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, already relies significantly on international donors to fund its social and welfare programmes.

“When you choose to place refugee children in the care of a country already dependent on the international donor community for supporting its own children, you make a clear choice to put refugee children and their families at serious risk,” Nicholson warned.

‘Unsafe and ill-equipped’

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch warned that Cambodia’s poor record on refugees and on human rights meant Australia was failing to meet its commitment that it would send people to a “safe third country.”

“Australia’s deal with Cambodia will send people to a country that has a terrible record for protecting refugees and is mired in serious human rights abuses,” said HRW’s Australia director Elaine Pearson. “Despite Canberra’s claims, the reality is Cambodia is both unsafe and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees who will be given one-way tickets to Phnom Penh.”

Cambodia has a poor record when it comes to asylum seekers. In 2009, for example, the country sent a group of 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China (where HRW said they were jailed). Within days it had received a billion-dollar package of grants and loans from Beijing.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan, Friday’s deal meant Australia’s international responsibilities towards refugees “are in question,” adding that people “fleeing conflict and persecution deserve compassion and help.”

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott speaks to media at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices during a joint press conference on February 7, 2014 in Sydney, Australia(Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images) Since coming to power last year, PM Abbott has tightened Australia’s asylum policy

“UNHCR has always advocated that asylum-seekers should be processed and benefit from protection in the territory of the country where they arrive or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them,” she said. “They should not be transferred to another country for asylum processing, and if recognized as refugees, relocated to yet another country for permanent settlement.”

Services lacking

Much of Cambodia’s infrastructure and social services remain in disarray after the destruction of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule, civil war, and underinvestment by the government. Mental health services, for instance, are practically non-existent outside Phnom Penh. In addition, there are few jobs, and education and healthcare are poor.

Sister Denise Coghlan heads the Cambodian office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has operated here since 1990. Although Cambodia’s willingness to take in refugees was “a good thing,” she said the lack of mental health services is only one issue they will face.

“[Cambodia's] capacity to accept people who have been severely traumatized both by the situation in their own country and by their treatment by the Australian government – first on places like Christmas Island and then Nauru – these people have now been left in a very traumatized and psychologically weak situation,” she said. “The capacity of the mental health facilities in Cambodia to really cope with this kind of situation is pretty weak.”

By: Robert Carmichael, Deutsche Welle

We were scammed: workers

Pressure is building against a recruitment firm in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, as nearly 100 workers from different provinces travelled to the company’s offices yesterday to demand the recruiter pay back fees for jobs in Thailand that never materialised.

Tan Naven, chief of Teuk Thla commune, where the Koun Khmer Training Center is located, said the aggrieved workers came straight from the border with Thailand carrying only their luggage.

“Local authorities went to intervene to make the company find a solution for the workers,” said Navin, who claimed that the company has been in his commune for nearly a year, and that it is licensed with the Ministry of Labour.

Reports of problems with the centre began last week, when five workers repatriated from Thailand said they had relied on Koun Khmer’s services only to be rebuffed after crossing the border and sent back to Cambodia. Others were from a firm called R&T Co.

Although they allegedly paid between $300 and $400 each to the recruiters, the workers were told by Thai authorities that their visas were bogus. This larger group made similar claims.

Kheng Chan, a 30-year-old from Kampong Speu province, said he travelled to Thailand via the centre on August 18. When Chan crossed the border, he met 187 Cambodian workers who were stranded there without jobs – all from Koun Khmer. They were sent back on August 25, and made their way to the city.

“We came from different provinces to arrive in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Monitoring NGOs have claimed that unclear labour policies have translated into abuse and exploitation, but Koun Khmer said it is not in that business.

A representative of the company who declined to be named said it is negotiating with the workers and offering to pay for another round of travel, while guaranteeing employment this time. He claimed the original documents were legit.

“We cannot pay them back,” he said.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday.

By: Sen David, The Phnom Penh Post

Migrants Skipping Gov’t Plan for Thai Alternative

The number of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand has risen to 190,000 thanks to the new one-stop service centers set up across the border, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor said Wednesday.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said about 190,000 migrant workers—some with a full complement of legal documents, others with partial paperwork and others with none—were in Thailand taking advantage of the centers.

“In general, they went to show up at the one-stop-service offices set up in Thai territory,” he said.

The Thai junta set up the centers along its border with Cambodia after some 250,000 mostly illegal Cambodian migrant workers fled the country for fear of arrests and violence at the hands of the new Thai military government.

Illegal migrant workers, as long as they have identification cards, can use the centers to get 60-day passes that let them stay in Thailand while they prepare the documentation they need to stay longer.

“They have 60 days to complete other documents to make them legal,” Mr. Suor said. “If they want to work in Thailand, they first must be patient and understand some legal procedures.”

The Thai option has attracted far more migrant workers than the system set up by the Cambodian government to send workers back to Thailand legally.

To help workers return to Thailand, the government in June reduced the price of passports for migrant laborers from $124 to $4.

But to qualify, workers must provide proof of employment from a Thai employer or a recruitment agency and then obtain certification from the Labor Ministry before applying for the subsidized passport.

As of last week, just 500 applications had reached the passport department.

Sok Phal, director of the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration, estimated about 100,000 migrant workers have returned to Thailand in the past two months. However, he could not specify whether the workers were returning with or without proper paperwork.

By: Hul Reaksmey, The Cambodia Daily

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