The Cambodian government is planning to forge ahead with controversial measures to cut nightshift wages for garment workers, despite warnings from union leaders that the move could lead to a national strike.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Tuesday (8 May) that cutting the nightshift pay will create thousands of new jobs in Cambodia's clothing sector by encouraging companies to hire more people to work in the factories during the evening. 

Under current labour laws, nightshift workers are paid twice the rate as those who work on the day shift. In Cambodia the daily rate averages around US$50 a month.

Cambodia's National Assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, plans to vote on 17 May on a new labour law to lower nightshift wages by 70%.

However, Chea Mony, president of Cambodia's largest labour organisation, the Free Trade Union, warned that instead of cutting workers' wages there are better ways to boost business in Cambodia, such as "eliminating corruption, bureaucracy, and improving security and infrastructure."

He said the Union plans to call a general strike if nightshift wages are lowered from 200% to 130% of day rates later this month - but would agree to a night rates being 150% of day rates if the working week was cut from 48 to 44 hours.

In contrast, other groups have come out in support of the measure. Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said Cambodia's high nightshift rate was a strong deterrent for manufacturers.

Currently only six or seven of Cambodia's garment factories have night shifts, he says, adding that if all factories were to instate a nightshift, employment in the garment sector, which now stands at 350,000, could "easily double."

And John Ritchotte, chief technical advisor for the International Labor Organization's labour dispute resolution project said that global norms for night wages are 130 to 150 percent of day rates. Lowering the rate will make it more attractive for employers to put a night shift in place.

Cambodia currently has 300 garment factories which last year exported garments worth about US$2bn, nearly three-quarters of which were shipped to the US.