At least 25 businesses last week signed an agreement of principle to ensure that their companies don’t violate the rights of workers or the public.
The agreement was signed during the first-ever meeting between the private sector, civil society, diplomats and government officials that was aimed at promoting human rights in business.
The agreement contained principles prepared by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and urges signatories to promote rights and an adequate standard of living for workers and to eliminate discrimination. It encourages employees to form and join unions and exercise rights of collective bargaining.
Ou Virak, president of the Center for Human Rights, said abuses occur across Cambodia’s industries, from commercial enterprises to real estate, construction, garments and tourism.
Companies withhold salaries, force long hours or illegally fire workers, he said. In some cases, companies use state security forces to push people from land to be used by their businesses.
“There are consistent human rights abuses perpetrated by some business people because, firstly, they want to make more profit to enlarge their business and, secondly, because of a biased court and corruption in society, which forces them into taking part in the violation of human rights,” he said.
Companies willing to sign the rights agreement included business associations, construction and transportation companies, tourism agencies and private schools.
“If our staff is happy to work for us, they will take good care of their responsibilities, so it benefits both sides,” said Quach Mengly, president of the American Intercon Institution, who was among the signatories. “If we respect their rights, it will motivate them to provide a good service, but if we don’t, we won’t get any result.”
Some companies said they were considering the measure, while others said they did not need to sign an agreement in order to respect the rights of workers.
In Channy, president of Acleda Bank, said he didn’t sign the agreement because his bank has maintained principles of human rights for many years. However, he said he did support the initiative.
Absent from last week’s signing were representatives from major garment factories or real estate companies—those who typically face protests from workers or residents.
In principle, Cambodia’s labor law incorporates principles of human rights, including eight-hour workdays, proper salary, a healthy working environment and respect for contracts.
In reality, rights groups have documented work environments that stifle worker rights to assembly and land rights for residents facing evictions under developments.
“The government must act as an arbitrator,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. “But the arbitrators in our society usually stand by the companies in order to receive some benefits. As a result, companies don’t care much about worker salaries and working conditions, like in other countries. Other countries will punish those companies, or shut those companies down, but that never happens in our country.”
Britain Ambassador Andrew Mace, who attended last week’s signing, said it was timely to discuss human rights and business as beneficial to all.
“A democratic society in which the rights of the community and individual are respected helps to grow markets,” he said. “The stability of the rights respected creates in businesses confidence to invest. The free exchange of ideas in society creates intellectual capital on which businesses can draw to innovate and improve their competitiveness. Lack of respect for rights, on the other hand, creates conflict that can seriously impact the profitability and sustainability of the businesses.”
Mace said to promote human rights, the country needs to eliminate corruption in state institutions and increase confidence in the courts.
Government officials, meanwhile, say they are working to improve human rights.
Por Pheak, director of the Ministry of Interior’s international relations department, said the ministry has a good governance project that began in 2009 and will run through 2013 in an attempt to strengthen transparency and reduce corruption in the private sector.