05/23/2012, 00.00
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Workers in Phnom Penh on strike for higher wages and better working conditions

The employer is a Singapore-based company working for international labels like Levi's, Gap and H&M. Workers want more money for transportation and housing as their base pay falls below the survival level. PIME missionary says the fight is unequal but at least it is a "sign" of greater awareness about workers' and labour rights.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - Workers at a Cambodian garment factory are in the 11th day of their strike. They make clothing for international labels like Levi's, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and H&M. The want higher wages and better working conditions, but have failed so far to reach a deal with management despite the intervention of government and trade union officials. For PIME missionary Fr Mario Ghezzi, the workers are not likely to win. Things are bound to be the same because competition from China is driving factory owners to keep salaries low. Nevertheless, the labour action is a "sign" that workers have become aware of their rights.

More than 5,000 workers from the Singaporean-owned SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd. failed to reach an agreement with their employers on Tuesday to end an 11-day strike. Their demands include an increase in their base pay of US$ 61 a month for eight-hour days, six-day weeks, by US$ 5, plus an extra US$ 25 a month for transportation and housing.

Cambodia's garment industry is the main foreign exchange earner for the poor Southeast Asian country. Its garment exports in 2011 were worth about US$ 4.3 billion.

In order to remain competitive, company bosses regularly require workers to work on their day off, deny them sick leave and force to work up to 16-hour shifts.

Company officials have complained that union leaders are trying to prevent a deal by making impossible demands. In reality, workers have reduced them by asking for only US$ 10 a month for transportation and housing.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Mario Ghezzi, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who has lived in Cambodia for the past 12 years, Chinese competition is forcing local firms to keep wages low.

"Workers often face conditions that are barely above survival level," he said. "They are subordinated to the system. And in the Cambodian context, it is hard for lower class people to have the strength to react. Usually, they just put up."

"The basic salary is around US$ 80," he explained. "With a lot of overtime, they might reach US$ 100 a month. However, food and rent in the capital can cost US$ 80 and more."

"Salaries are inadequate to meet the needs of basic existence," Fr Ghezzi noted. "For this reason, the Catholic Church has tried to provide aid and assistance to garment workers, especially young women, through its various associations like 'Claire Amitié'."

Equally, the Church "offers training courses and health assistance, albeit more in terms of personal awareness, with the focus on the value of the human person rather than labour rights." (DS)

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