Across Asia's borders, labour activists team up to press wage claims

Aug 18 2014, 13:31 IST
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SummaryThe result was a 25 percent increase in the minimum pay for an estimated 600,000 garment workers..

Labour leaders behind the biggest strikes in Cambodia's $5 billion garment industry knew last year they had a strong case for higher wages: they had already compared notes with activists in neighbouring countries.

The result was a 25 percent increase in the minimum pay for an estimated 600,000 garment workers, to $100 a month, the biggest jump in around 15 years. Now, they're asking for more.

Negotiations over pay and working conditions have typically remained within national borders, but activists are now bringing more muscle to the table and putting more pressure on employers and governments by using shared experiences in nearby markets.

For global companies that have shifted production to Southeast Asia's low-cost manufacturing hub, this could mean less room for wage bargaining, a squeeze on profits and maybe even higher price tags on anything from shoes and clothing to cars and electronics appliances.

"I see a trend towards more and stronger collaboration among labour leaders that can take different shapes and forms, from exchanging information to partnerships," said Peter van Rooij, director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Jakarta, noting ties would likely strengthen with next year's planned economic integration by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Thousands of workers in China, Indonesia and Cambodia have protested in recent months at local firms supplying U.S. sportswear company Nike Inc to press for better pay and conditions. Up to 4,000 workers at Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing Co, which makes clothes for Nike, went on strike in May last year demanding higher wages to keep pace with transport, rent and healthcare costs.

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Across Asia's low-cost garment manufacturing industry in particular, there have been more strikes as unions use a shortage of skilled workers to press for better pay and improved safety - an issue highlighted by the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed at least 1,130 people.

Members of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) have reported a jump in the number of strikes to 147 last year from fewer than three dozen in 2011. Other international brands hit by protests at Cambodia-based suppliers last year include H&M Hennes and Mauritz AB, Wal-Mart Stores Inc , Gap Inc and Puma SE.

Following the Bangladesh disaster, local unions reached out to international labour representatives, said Annie Adviento, director of IndustriALL's Southeast Asia office, helping create the landmark Accord on Fire and Building Safety - a legally

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