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Labor Leaders, Opposition Worry as Union Law Heads Toward Debate

Cambodian garment workers and villagers block the main road demanding freedom for some worker activists who were arrested during Thursday's strike in Kambol village, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. Troops have been used t

Labor leaders fear the draft law will make it harder for workers to unionize and demonstrate.

National Assembly lawmakers from the ruling party have decided to move forward on debate for a contentious law to regulate unions, despite objections from the opposition and labor leaders.

During a Permanent Committee meeting on Friday, lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party agreed to move ahead on an extraordinary session on April 4 to debate the draft law, one that labor leaders fear will make it harder for workers to unionize and demonstrate.

Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party say they do not support the extraordinary session, which comes following meetings last week between lawmakers, union leaders and other stakeholders over the draft.

​Rescue Party lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth told VOA Khmer the opposition does not support the draft because it fails to take into account the biggest worries of unions. Those concerns were discussed at a meeting on Wednesday, but few were included by an expert committee held Thursday, she said. “Now we still have a final option. That is, we discuss the matter in the plenary session.”

The draft bill does not address concerns over the legal scope of the law, funding for unions, conflicts of interest for union leaders, and a provision requiring majority consent before holding a demonstration, she said.

Chheang Von, a lawmaker and spokesman for the national assembly, told reporters that the law must be passed as soon as possible, because the restive labor sector, which employs up to 700,000 workers, must be regulated. “The law in discussion is not 100 percent perfect, for me, but the question is, will it be fruitful?” he said. “Yes it will be. There are a lot of unions right now. It appears scary to me. The investors are also afraid.”

The law will prevent union leaders from having roles with conflict of interest that could help union members, he said. And it will ensure that a majority of workers, at least more than 50 percent, will have their interests served.

It is unclear so far whether the language of the draft requires that more than 50 percent of employees of a factory need to consent to a strike, or 50 percent of a union membership. Ke Sovannaroth said that language needs to be made more precise.

Ath Thun, president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he was disappointed with the progress of the draft and its being rushed to debate.

Wednesday’s workshop, in which union leaders were asked for their thoughts, was not built into a revision, he said. “I think the workshop was useless.” He will be working with international partners to find a way to further amend the draft, he said.

Rescue Party lawmaker Son Chhay, however, said it is unlikely at this point the draft will be modified further.