Cambodian riot police with guns prepare to confront striking garment workers during a crackdown on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in early January. Pic: AP.

Garment workers in Cambodia could defy a ban on demonstrations and strike again this month unless the government agrees to a further rise in the minimum wage.

Vice-president of the Cambodian Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), Kong Athit, said his and other unions had not set a date, but would be willing to strike over their demand to lift the minimum wage from US$100 to $160 per month.

“If the government is not offering a fair solution … maybe we can come up with a general strike again,” Mr. Athit said. CCAWDU organises 26,000 garment workers in Cambodia.

At a forum on January 16, unions heads called on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to resume wage negotiations, with the President of the Coalition of Cambodian Unions (CCU), Rong Chhun, promising a “grand strike” if an agreement could not be reached.

A previous two-week strike that caused many factories to close ended after a bloody crackdown by police and paramilitary forces on January 3. According to rights group LICADHO, the clashes left at least four protestors dead and more than 40 injured.

In December, a Labour Advisory Committee taskforce – comprised of government, unions and employers – found the living wage to be about $160. At the time, officials agreed to raise the minimum wage to $160 incrementally by 2018, but rejected a request by unions that it be lifted immediately.

“The $160 figure … it’s not spending like millionaires,” Mr. Athit said. “From what the taskforce found, we are making a demand in between.”

An analysis of the taskforce’s findings by the Cambodian Legal Education Centre (CLEC) showed many workers are relying on overtime and bonuses to support almost 50% of their basic expenses.

CLEC consultant Joel Preston says that for a worker to receive $160 a month under a then-$80 wage would mean working 10 hours each day with only two days off a month – a violation of Cambodian labor law.

But Ken Loo, the Secretary General of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners, rejects the need for further wage rises.

“[Workers] don’t need overtime in order to survive, but they need overtime for savings and if they want to send money home,” Ken Loo said.

Mr Loo argues that when the minimum wage was $80, the average worker – based on gross wages across GMAC’s membership divided by the number of employees – received $145.

”We do not limit the amount a worker can earn,” he said.

The garment industry is now worth $1.5bn to Cambodia’s economy with 450 factories employing almost 400,000 workers, most of whom are young women who support their impoverished rural families.

Any strike would likely incite a strong police response. Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Pa Socheatvong banned the opposition CNRP party on January 4 from hosting any further demonstrations in the capital “until the security situation returns to normal.”

The blanket ban has been widely criticised, with the UK delegation to Cambodia’s recent human rights review in Geneva noting the ban “has no basis in Cambodian law.” The US delegation said also it should be lifted “immediately.”

“[The government] want people to shut up, to listen and not to demand anything,” Kong Athit said.

“But for me there will not be any problem,” he said. If workers are given the wage raise being sought “they will go back to work, no worries.”

An interministerial committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon will meet tomorrow to discuss minimum wage reform, according the the Phnom Penh Post.

Mr. Athit says any strike would be aimed at also securing the release of the 23 nonprofit and union leaders arrested during the crackdown in early January. The men face charges of intentional violence and intentional damage, both with aggravating circumstances.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) yesterday announced unions across the globe will demonstrate outside Cambodian embassies on the eve of the court hearing for the detainees on February 10, demanding their release.