Dedicated to change the work environment
At first Kry Suntha wasn’t interested in joining the union – that would only cause problems he thought. But he learned more and decided to start a union group. Now – after more than ten years of struggle - he and his comrades have more than doubled their income and have better job conditions.
Suntha has been working at Caltex gasoline since 2001. At that time he worked more than 8 hours per day, had no paid leave or public holiday. He didn’t get paid for overtime work and he had no health cover. And the salary was 60 dollar per month. Female staff members had to resign if they were pregnant due to short term contracts.
He remembers when he first heard about the union:
“At first I wasn’t interested since I heard that the union creates problems at the workplace and they block roads for protests. I was told that there are no benefits with the union. “
But then people from Diakonia’ s partner Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, CFSWF, came to share information with the people working at the gas station.
“We were invited to attend their trainings on labour law, union formation, human rights, dispute resolution and health and safety at the workplace”, explains Suntha.
Later he found himself elected to lead the local union. Kry Suntha was also elected as focal person and sent to attend a comprehensive 6 months training on union formation and related laws. He became aware of his rights and decided to organize a union named Labour Democratic Union-Chevron Company.
“People were afraid to lose their jobs and at the beginning just a few persons joined the group”, he says.
The demands for improved working conditions and increased salary continued and the group slowly started to grow. Finally, they were strong enough to organize two strikes in Phnom Penh - one for two days in 2004 and another one in 2015 for twelve days where employees from all the 19 branches of the gas company joined the demands for better working conditions.
Thanks to their persistence Suntha and his colleagues have steadily increased their monthly wage from 60 dollar per month to 75 in 2004, 143 in 2015 and now he’s paid 160 dollar per month. And they only work 8 hours per day, 6 days a week and are paid extra for night shifts and additional work hours.
The hard work in the union has also led to that the gasoline workers now are entitled to 18 days annual leave, plus 25 days of public holidays and 170 dollar for health care per year. Female staff on maternity leave are paid 50 percent of their salary for three months and the employer also pays 20 dollar per month for child care when the children are between 18-36 months.
Kry Suntha says that the next step will be to strive for a work environment less challenging to the health.
“My job is seriously affecting my health. I have to check the fuel tank at the gas station every day and when I open the lid the gas hits my eyes and my nose”, says Kry Sunthawho works as a supervisor at a gas station.
Twice a day he has to measure the gas level in the tank.
“When I breathe, the fumes enter my throat. I often feel that I have a sore throat and I’m coughing a lot” says Suntha. He’s worried that the gasoline gas may affect his lungs or provoke a skin infection.
Even though the salary has increased, Suntha still needs to work in three places to support his family’s needs. Weekdays he is at a logistic company working with tax clearance. Every morning he gets up at four in order to travel from the home in Phnom Penh to Tropang Thlong at the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where he takes care of incoming goods. Later, at evenings between 6 and 12 pm, he’s working at the gas station in Phnom Penh - 6 days per week. Saturdays and Sundays are spent at a fertilizer company, where he works as a salesman.
“I only sleep 3-4 hours per night. And sometimes it feels like I forget the faces of my two daughters. They are usually sleeping when I get home and when I leave early in the morning. Sometimes, I open the mosquito net just to see them”.
Suntha’s wife works for the Cambodian government and the couple is struggling hard to repay the money they borrowed from a relative to buy their flat. But even though Suntha works so hard, he still tries to find time to engage in the union.
“I want to help my colleagues to have better working conditions, many of them don’t know how to do it”.
Despite all these positive changes Suntha still wants to the union to be stronger and demand better working conditions such as pension, increased basic salary for all staff and participation in advocacy and lobby for fair implementation of the recently passed union law.
Story told by Reth Pheng, Programme Officer in Diakonia’s Cambodia office