Intended to create jobs, breaks for employers seen compounding crisis for Cambodia’s working class
By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, Oct 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cambodia's move to scrap some employee bonus and holiday entitlements is likely to hurt the poorest workers already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, labour rights groups and unions warned on Thursday.
Higher rates of pay for night shift workers and the moving of public holidays that fall on weekends to weekdays - which is currently mandatory - will be abolished by changes to the labour law drafted by the government last month.
"The working class rely on these benefits to survive," said Ou Tepphallin, head of trade union the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation.
"They are in a state of crisis already – and now we have another move to support employers while workers get nothing," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Cambodia has recorded no deaths and less than 300 coronavirus infections, according to government health officials, but the pandemic has hurt its vital garment industry - which employs about one in 20 Cambodians – and the tourism and construction sectors, cutting thousands of jobs.
The proposed changes to the country's labour law will attract new investors to Cambodia and encourage existing ones to consider ramping up production, potentially creating thousands of jobs, said to Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
"This is the fastest way to increase employment without a significant increase to capital investment," said Loo, who is also an advisor to Cambodia's labour ministry.
Fears that thousands of low-income casino, hotel and factory workers will have their pay slashed under the amendments were overblown, he said.
"If an employer is unable to attract night-shift workers without paying a premium, they will have to amend their offer - simple," he said.
"It's a free market - supply and demand - and that is essentially what we want."
Heng Suor, a spokesman for the Southeast Asian country's labour ministry, declined to comment.
The labour ministry previously said it wanted the new rules to be introduced this year.
The proposed changes, which are yet to be approved by parliament, would see an end to additional 30% pay rates earned by night shift workers.
In neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, night workers earn between 10% and 30% extra.
At least 1.7 million jobs in Cambodia were at risk due to COVID-19 and the poverty rate could double, to about one-in-four people, the World Bank said in May.
Thousands of laid off workers in Cambodia are already fighting for severance pay, leave entitlements and government handouts, said Khun Tharo, a program director at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, an advocacy group.
"You already have five star, international hotel chains paying staff $100 a month. It is simply not the right time to be making these changes," he said.
The proposed changes would deepen the "economic repression of the working class", he added.
Six trade unions boycotted the final round of discussions on the draft amendments with government and employer representatives earlier this month, saying that their concerns over the changes fell on deaf ears.
However, a boycott by night-shift workers was unlikely, said trade union head Tepphallin, citing strict laws on labour action and the desperate situation they are in.
"They have families to feed and debts to pay," she said.
"Do they take the risk of stopping to fight for their rights here or do they go quickly to find money somewhere else?"
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.