Labor leaders say the draft law to regulate unions is not meant to help workers at all, but will instead prevent fair wages and proper conditions in factories.
Some 600,000 people are employed in the sector, but it has seen much unrest in recent years, as the cost of living in Cambodia has outstripped wages.
Union leaders met last week to discuss the law and prepare official arguments against it. Labor Ministry officials say the law is still being drafted and will be sent to the Ministry of Justice for input next week.
Sat Samoth, undersecretary of state at the Labor Ministry, said that the draft law, which consists of 17 chapters and 99 articles, is being written with the wellbeing of unions in mind.
Recommendations from the unions will be considered, he said, so unions should “send [comments] to the ministry.”
David Welsh, country director of the US-based group Solidarity, said he has seen the draft law, and it does not serve the interests or unions or workers. It benefits the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, he said.
“They are using it to threaten the independent non-CPP trade union movement and as a threat to union/worker freedom leading up to this year's minimum wage negotiations,” he said in an email.
Some provisions “would deeply favor corrupt government unions and serve to undermine, even eliminate, independent trade unions,” he said.
Ath Thorn, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that the draft law imposes large fines on union leaders, or could even put them in jail, if they don’t inform the government of their work.
Ath Thorn was summoned to court last year and is required now to show up at his commune office every month.
Unions are drafting a letter to the ministry, to be sent next week, calling for changes to the draft law, he said.
One article of the draft requires 20 percent of workers to support a union in order for it to form. Other articles stipulate major fines and punishments for unions in the case of worker unrest. The draft law also requires unions to re-register with the government and to be certified in order to operate.
Van Sou Ieng, president of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, told VOA Khmer the law will give confidence to investors, who currently are afraid to open factories here, “because the workers await instructions from unions to stage strikes at any time, without legal procedures.”
Worker protests over the minimum wage came to a head in January 2014, leading to a violent government crackdown that left at least five people dead and dozens more injured, along with the jailing of union leaders and workers. Following those protests, the government raised the minimum wage to $128 per month, but workers say they need at least $177 per month to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Union leaders and workers already face hostile authorities. Many have been beaten severely, arrested or jailed, and other leaders, such as Ath Thon, have been accused of inciting criminal acts, destroying property, and bothering authority. They have been order to not participate in public gatherings.
The new law will make it even harder, Ath Thorn said. “This means that the freedom of the unions declines,” he said. “There won’t be protesters. The workers will be abused without anyone to protect them. The employers and the government will do as much as they wish.”
Welsh said that if the draft law were passed, some unions would be barred.
“The government is proposing that a union's status could be changed, cancelled, if a leader for example had a criminal conviction,” he said. “This is, in the Cambodian context, very dangerous, as currently every major leader is facing a criminal case sponsored by the government and garment industry.”
Vorn Pao, leader of an association called IDEA, who was arrested in the 2014 protests and faces a raft of charges as a result, said he worries that people like him, with cases still pending, won’t be able to lead unions under the new law.
“I would like for the international community and the buyers to pressure not to have this law passed, since it is no use to the workers,” he said. “There’s already the labor law.”
Welsh said there are other flaws with the draft law.
For example, it excludes civil servants, teachers, domestic workers and tuk-tuk drivers, among other groups, in violation of international labor law, he said.
“The law also gives a ministry official, not a court, the right to determine if a strike is illegal, and potentially limits trade unions from being able to work with international NGOs,” he said. “It is extremely dangerous legislation for the independent trade union movement.”
If the government goes forward with the legislation, there will be severe economic consequences, in terms of continued brand investment, he said.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the rights group Licadho, said the law is made to silence workers and unions. Both the union law and the draft law governing NGOs “have common pressure points,” he said. Both aim to silence dissent, he said.