Textile and garment exports are currently the backbone of Cambodia's economy, meaning that an internal dispute over minimum wages and the continued threat of national strikes presents a real challenge.

Early this September, a huge strike of garment workers in Bangladesh brought tough consequences for its textile and garment industry - and last week the same was repeated in Cambodia.

In fact, the strike threat in Cambodia's garment industry first broke out in June 2009, but it seemed that the minimum wage issues had been resolved by July when the The Labor Advisory Committee decided to increase the minimum wage from US$50 to $61/month.

However, unions and protesters want the minimum wage to reach $93 per month, and held mass strikes in Phnom Penh last week. Accounts of the number of workers involved in the strikes vary from union claims of 80,000 people, to just 20,000 according to the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia (GMAC).

The dispute has since continued between the unions and manufacturers, with legal action over the strikes being threatened.

A number of unions joined forces to start last week's mass strike, including the Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC) and the Cambodian National Confederation (CNC) and CCAWDU. They blamed the foreign brands and asked them to take responsibility for labour issues.
In opposition, the GMAC, representing most garment manufacturers in the country, insisted that the strikes and demonstrations were illegal and that the recent minimum wage rise was fair.

GMAC argues that although the minimum wage for garment workers stands at $61, the real pay for most workers exceeds this figure. The association provided evidence of an average monthly wage of $94, and said workers also benefited from bonuses for attendance, performance and seniority.

Last week's strikes were put to an end when the Government promised to host a meeting where all relevant bodies and unions will discuss the benefits of workers and the minimum wage.

For now though, the dispute continues as factories file for compensation and the unions carry on with their campaign.

According to the GMAC, Cambodia's the textile and garment industry has been suffering from "illegal strikes" and demonstrations, including an estimated financial loss of US$15m in addition to its damaged reputation.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, gave one example of a strike at Winner Knitting Factory. “Workers blocked the gates of factories preventing vehicles and staff from entering or leaving factory premises. In this case, even the vehicle of the director of the factory was sequestered,” he told just-style.

However, the unions insist that their activities were legal. “Workers’ demand for a fair income, security in the workplace, health protection and decent living conditions can only lead to more productivity that can benefit employers and the economy as a whole,” said the Sam Rainsy Party, which represents the workers.

GMAC insists it will "continue to defend the interest and the future of the garment industry in Cambodia", and that next week's (27 September) meeting will be an important moment for the sector.