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Hun Sen Finds Win-Win-Win in Labor Dispute: Analysts

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the courts to drop cases against labor leaders brought by factories in the wake of September's general strike. At the time, he called this a “win-win” strategy. Analysts say his response was a winning strategy for the prime minster as well.

His foray into the strikes likely curried favor with workers ahead of elections in 2012 and 2013, said Am Sam Ath, lead investigator for the rights group Licadho.

“The prime minister changed his political attitude from supporting factory owners to supporting workers as an opportunity to attract the support of the workers and unions for his political affairs in the upcoming election,” he said.

Seventeen factories have cases against labor leaders, claiming the September strike was illegal. They have barred some 150 representatives from working, pending a court resolution. But that created strife in the industry, even as workers and managers have sought a compromise.

Ny Chakrya, head investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said Hun Sen's statements would appeal to both workers and nervous garment buyers alike.

“I believe the courts will really give up the factories' complaints, and the factories will withdraw their complaints from the courts,” he said.

Meanwhile, unions and managers are looking for ways to simplify their negotiations, to prevent strikes in the future. The four-day strike cost factories up to $15 million and caused major buyers in the US to call for a resolution.

Workers say they need better incomes as the cost of living rises, but factories say they have raised salaries as far as they can in the current marketplace.

But even the unions have had a hard time agreeing. Cambodia's garment industry—its main economic earner—is full of unions. Some lean politically one way or another; while others remain politically neutral. Not all of them get along.

Ath Thun, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation and a leader of September's strike, said labor disputes are hard to effectively solve because of these competing interests.

Hun Sen's warnings, he said, prevented the dispute from widening. “He prevented the dispute from spreading to destruction.”

But Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said both sides have a duty to avoid labor disputes that can discourage potential buyers. (The Free Trade Union did not enter last month's strike, he said, because it ran counter to his union's approach to strikes.)

“The buyers can stop orders from Cambodia and go order from neighboring countries,” he said. “Then Cambodia will meet with a big problem.”

Yim Serey Vathanak, project coordinator for worker education at the International Labor Organization, said the industry still lacks a quick response mechanism for solving disputes. In the absences of that mechanism, he said, Hun Sen was able “to reduce the tension in the garment industry.”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said Hun Sen had not come down “on either side.”

“He wants both parties to negotiate and compromise for peace,” he said.

Whether the factories will now decide to drop their charges against labor leaders was now up to them individually, he said.

The important thing was that work continues, he said. If not, “no one benefits” he said. “The workers don't get paid a salary. The factories can't get production. So both sides lose.”