CAPTURING
THE
GAINS

economic and social upgrading
in global production networks



Capturing the Gains Working Paper 2013/24

Workers’ agency and re-working power relations in Cambodia’s garment industry.

Dennis Arnold


Abstract

This paper explores Cambodian garment factory workers’ collective voice and ability to negotiate a living wage. Workers’ agency is examined through a case study of a large-scale strike in September 2010 over national minimum wage negotiations, led by two Cambodian trade union federations. Analysis is centred on four structural impediments to workers’ wage demands. First, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) consolidated power in 2008. As a result, space for independent trade unions and civil society is decreasing. Second, Cambodia is not deemed ‘competitive’ as a global sourcing option in terms of price, quality and speed to market. As a result, low wages and a proliferation of unmonitored subcontract factories are increasingly becoming the industry’s competitive advantage vis-à-vis Bangladesh and Vietnam. Third, the proliferation of fixed-duration contracts in Cambodia means work is less secure, with attendant impacts on workers and unions’ negotiating strength. And fourth, the unusually high number of plant-level and national trade union federations makes it difficult for ‘genuine’ unions to promote the rights of their members, and workers’ agency potential is marginalized. The intersection of these four structural forces circumscribes workers and independent trade unions’ ability to rework power relations with the employers association, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC). Despite the challenges, workers and independent unions recognize themselves as the agents who must shape key demands, including on wages.

 

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