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Unions and Employers Deeply Divided Over Cambodia’s Trade Union Law

Yang Sophoan, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, clashes with the security police during a protest joined by over 100 members of labor unions in front of National Assembly, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. ( Leng Len/ VOA Khmer)

The law gives the Ministry of Labor excessive control over union operations, allowing the ministry to audit a union’s finances and international financial support.

Less than a month after King Norodom Sihamoni signed the controversial Trade Union Law into force, dispute continues to rage between critics of the legislation who say it is bad for the country’s poorly-paid workers, and supporters who believe the law is necessary for business growth.

Lawmakers from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party hurriedly adopted the law in April despite concerns expressed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that provisions in the legislation could violate workers’ rights. Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote while union leaders who had gathered to protest outside the National Assembly compound were dragged away and punched by district security forces.

Independent unions and employers remain as divided as ever.

“How can a factory with 25 unions survive?” asked Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), adding that it was incomprehensible to expect an employer to negotiate a dispute with 25 different union leaders.

A law was necessary to rein in the country’s unions, Van Sou Ieng said.

According to GMAC, last year there were 3,166 unions for the more than 500,000 workers employed in the country’s 557 garment and textile exporting factories, and 58 footwear factories. Though garment production is already Cambodia’s largest industry, which accounts for 26.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, Van Sou Ieng said without the trade union law, foreign investors will not come to do business.

“Only with the trade union law will we, employers, be able to survive…. not only Cambodia, every country has trade union law. Those who criticize [the law] should do businesses, and [then] they will understand.”

The first draft of the Trade Union Law was completed in 2008 and passed through numerous consultative meetings involving government officials, employers and employee representatives. From the beginning, the proposed law fueled frequent protests from workers and unions, who said it restricted freedom of association as guaranteed under the Cambodian Constitution, and subjected unions to undue government control. Critics also claimed the law was not in accordance with UN human rights covenants and ILO conventions on workers rights and to which Cambodia is a signatory.

While Article 5 of the union law says that workers and employers shall enjoy the right to form and join professional organizations of their choice, the law demands excessively high requirements for union registrations, and restricts union autonomy and activities, said Am Sam Ath, senior investigator at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

The law also restricts who can be selected as a union leader. Anyone prosecuted by the court cannot become a leader of a union, said Am Sam Ath, noting that a number of independent union leaders have been prosecuted in unfair trials that were politically motivated. They would be effectively ruled out of senior positions in unions by the law.

The law also gives the Ministry of Labor excessive control over union operations, allowing the ministry to audit a union’s finances and international financial support.

Even more worrying, Article 15 in the law gives the Ministry of Labor extraordinary discretion to implement additional procedures - through directives known as Prakas - that allows the ministry to unilaterally decide whether or not to authorize a union registration request.

Article 13 of the law also requires a union to collect supports from at least 50 percent plus 1 of its members in order to satisfy the meeting quorum to decide on whether to strike or not. With factories and workers spread over a large area and poor communications infrastructure, the logistics of such a task would be considerable.

Such a requirement to qualify for strike action is impossible and impractical, said Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.

“In a democratic society, one person can (decide to) go on strike,” said Moeun Tola.

“How can unions like the Free Trade Union of Chea Mony, with a hundred thousand members, obtain consent from fifty thousand members in order to go on strike?”

After ruling-party lawmakers adopted the union law in April, the ILO said its influential Committee on Freedom of Association in Geneva would meet regularly to assess if the new legislation complies with international conventions ratified by Cambodia.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) group was more forthright, saying the passage of the law was “a step backward for workers’ rights and violates international labor and human rights standards.”

Employer organizations in Cambodia disagree.

Describing the high-level criticism of the union law as “unfair” and “unwarranted,” Sandra D’Amico, vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Association (CAMFEBA), said curbs on unions were necessary for business.

D’Amico was part of the CAMFEBA team that issued a policy paper last year calling the union law “a necessity for industrial peace and economic growth, sustainability and diversification.”

Regardless of the concerns expressed by the ILO, APHR and others, D’Amico believes the union law is in line with international labor and human rights conventions.

“Implementation of international conventions is implemented differently in every country around the world. If the world [was] perfect, we would have one law and one way of implementing things,” D’Amico said.

“The law is actually very good in the context of Cambodia in terms of industrial relation development, in terms of economic development. I am very positive about the law,” she said.

Moeun Tola, of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said the ruling party passed the law without proper debate and consultation with those who will be most affected. The law, he said, should be suspended until after proper discussion to address the concerns of its many critics – from ordinary union members in garment factories to the ILO committee in Geneva.

“If necessary, we can make amendment to the law.”