Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday pledged his commitment to preventing garment factory owners from escaping their obligations to workers by closing their factories without warning, even as the current lack of a formal system for dealing with such situations has left at least one group of affected workers in seeming limbo.
Speaking to more than 10,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district yesterday, the prime minister said a long-term solution would prevent owners from fleeing the country without having paid severance to their workers when their factories shuttered.
He repeated his February promise to pay $4.6 million from the state coffers to cover unpaid salaries and severance for workers from nine factories whose owners had fled, and said employers should have to pay a deposit to the bank if there were irregularities in their paying of workers.
“Once the employers have fled, we are responsible,” he said, alleging that some such employers went broke “gambling and then fled”.
“But the government needs to be responsible.”
The deposits plan echoes one long floated by labour rights advocates, which the Ministry of Labour recently pledged to put into force. It would require factory owners to make severance payments incrementally into an account that would be used to reimburse workers should their factory abruptly close.
At present, officials typically sell shuttered factories’ assets to cover back pay, but workers and advocates have said the proceeds are rarely enough to cover the entire sum.
However, workers at Por Sen Chey district’s Yu Fa Garment Industry factory, which closed unexpectedly in February and whose owner fled, said that they were resisting the option of selling off the factory’s assets out of fear of being short-changed. Instead, they are hoping to receive their full pay under the government’s $4.6 million pledge, though officials have so far declined to say which nine factories are eligible.
Yu Fa worker Sen Sambath, 35, said unions had assured them that they were among the nine factories.
“We used to bargain about selling the factory’s assets, but after prime minister announced that the government offers $4.6 million, we can’t sell those assets,” she said.
She explained that other factories – such as Yu Fa’s sister factories SRE Garment Co Ltd and Yu Da, which also shuttered – had only received about 60 percent of their final salary and none of their severance from the proceeds of the assets sale. The government, she said, now considered those two conflicts as resolved – a plight she and her colleagues didn’t want to face.
“That’s why we don’t accept selling the factory’s assets,” she said.
William Conklin, of labour rights organisation Solidarity Centre, said those fears were “understandable” as the list of nine factories remained undisclosed.
“It’d be good for the government to assure [publicly] that they are part of the nine factories,” he said, suggesting the Labour Ministry meet with the workers.
Though he believed the government would pay out the promised $4.6 million, he said better solutions should be found. “The government can’t pay out all the time, it’s not sustainable,” he said.
And despite agreeing that in general a deposit might help alleviate the problem, he said this might be difficult to implement.
Suth Chet, a union organiser at the Cambodian Unions Movement of Workers, said the government was too slow in giving out the promised payment. “Workers from Yu Fa factory were looking forward to get their severance compensated, but they still have not received it yet,” he said. “It’s close to Khmer New Year now and workers do not have money to cover it.”
Ath Thorn, president of union C.CAWDU, complained that his union had submitted a letter to the Labour Ministry asking for an official list of the nine factories, but hadn’t heard back.
Labour Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to requests for comments.
Additional reporting by Leonie Kijewski