PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Is $6 a day really too much for a multibillion-dollar energy company to pay its workers in Cambodia?
This is a question Chevron Cambodia Ltd. is grappling with. Starting on May 12, over 200 workers at Chevron’s Caltex gas stations across this capital city ground the firm’s business to a halt, demanding their salaries be increased from $110 to $160 a month.
The strike comes just a few weeks after the company upped the monthly wages of gas station attendants and other staff by $10 to $20, following a call for a substantial salary increase by the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation (CFSWF).
The increase, according to a Chevron statement, makes its current remuneration “competitive and market based.”
Here’s what you need to know to make sense of the situation.
Why are workers still striking?
They say the increase is too little, and they’re determined to continue the strike until their demands are met.
Pho Chhunleang, 22, claims his salary is not sufficient to get by. Pho has been working as a Caltex gas station attendant for a year and earns $110 a month after toiling six days a week from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. “It is not enough to live, for the food prices went up. I am already sharing my room with two friends to reduce the rent. Sometimes, I borrow from them to send $20 to my family every three months,” he said.
How is Chevron responding?
Just like Pho, Chevron Cambodia seems determined to stick to its guns, so to speak. Notified of the strike by the union at the end of April, the company sent a letter to the National Police last week requesting the armed forces intervene “if the strike affects the firm’s business or properties.”
Will the police intervene?
Asked whether the police will entertain the multinational’s request, National Police spokesperson Kirt Chantharith said the force wouldn’t interfere unless it absolutely has to. “The employees have the right to strike under the labor law and our responsibility is to keep an eye out,” he said.
So what’s being done to solve the standoff?
In an attempt to resolve the dispute and resume their business operations, Caltex representatives met with the union on May 13 and 16. However, the negotiations yielded no concrete results, leading only to a provisional “agreement in principle,” according to Mora Sar, the union chief.
Another attempt took place on May 20, this time brokered by the Ministry of Labor. But neither the union nor the company were able to reach a consensus on all of the workers’ demands. (Aside from increased wages, workers want child care benefits and an end of year bonus.) “We did not agree on all. Therefore the strike continues,” Mora said. In an email, Chevron Cambodia stated it “has expressed its willingness to further review employees’ salaries” and is currently “reviewing options to resolve this issue.”
Is the US getting involved?
Last week, eager to see their demands met swiftly, Caltex workers marched to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition calling on the US government to guarantee Chevron will respect workers’ rights in Cambodia. While distancing the embassy from the dispute, its spokesperson, John Simmons, said the embassy often discusses the need to respect human and labor rights standards with American multinationals operating overseas. He added that the embassy fully supports the right of workers to “lawfully and peacefully negotiate for fair wages.”
There seems to be a lot of labor unrest in Cambodia. What’s up?
From the start of 2014, Cambodia has been shaken by protests in its flagship apparel industry, whose workers are demanding their wages be increased from $100 to $160 per month. In spite of a brutal crackdown by authorities on the garment factory workers in January, which saw six people killed and many more injured, garbage collectors, teachers, brewery workers and now Caltex employees have gone on strike calling for higher wages.
But so far, the garment sector is the only one to guarantee a set minimum wage, despite the fact that most Cambodians are employed elsewhere. Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a US-based labor rights organization, said the authorities are in breach of key International Labor Organization Conventions — workers remain devoid of basic rights because “the Cambodian labor law is structured only with the garment sector in mind.” This is why, he concluded, as one of the most prominent American interests in the Kingdom, Chevron should be providing leadership in the living wage and union rights trend.
Marta Kasztelan is a human rights lawyer and freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Clothilde Le Coz is a freelance journalist and a specialist in freedom of expression and media development based in Cambodia. Marta and Clothilde are part of the RUOM collective in Cambodia.