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Striking an agreeable balance

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Lor Sok, former executive director of the Arbitration Council Foundation, talks to the Post earlier this month in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Striking an agreeable balance

Cambodia’s garment industry has been a huge driver of growth over the past decade, yet the sector is bogged down by weak industrial relations and poor law enforcement.

Frequent strike activity and poor working conditions are symptoms of the industry’s lax oversight.

The Post’s Cheng Sokorng sat down with Sok Lor, the former executive director of the Arbitration Council Foundation, last week to discuss how best to strengthen industrial relations in the Kingdom.

What is the state of industrial relations in Cambodia?

Before talking deeply on the relationship, we should look at the recent situation.

We’ve made progress over the last 10 years, and are developing, especially in regards to respect of the Labour Law, but we’ve also taken a small step back. Progress is not always smooth.

There have been a large number of wildcat strikes in recent times, which could not have been anticipated.

In addition, there have been reports alleging that some factories are not respecting the criteria of the Labour Law, but so far nothing has changed in that respect.

What can be done to improve relations between employers and workers?

We should ensure that negotiations are based on a collective bargaining agreement to maintain good relations between employers and workers, and prevent strikes during the validity of the agreement.

The group of workers that sign this agreement with their employer should clarify their demands on points such as wage revision, holidays, and right of maternity leave.

And workers should not be striking during the agreement’s duration.

When the agreement’s term ends, the two parties can continue to negotiate.

But if workers want to strike, they can strike to apply pressure while bargaining for another agreement.

So in order to create a stable relationship between employers and workers, we need to have a collective bargaining agreement, which ensures that there will be no more strikes and production lines will operate smoothly.

So what happens if one of the party breaches the collective bargaining agreement?

As per the government’s policy, the Arbitration Council will make a decision based on the collective bargaining agreement’s criteria, such as salaries, holidays, health and safety.

What are the root causes of strikes?

The Arbitration Council Foundation has issued reports on strike factors which include workers accusing employers of not respecting the Labour Law’s criteria, such as not following the health and safety regulations, excessively high factory air temperatures and other factors negatively affecting working conditions.

The practice of firing labour activists or union leaders in another hot button issue, and is difficult to control.

Other factors are relate to the practical implementation of labour regulations, which do not discourage workers, for example, of striking, but then demanding wages for days not worked during the strike.

According to the law, if you don’t work, you don’t have the right to get paid.

Yet many employers continue to pay striking workers because of pressure, which creates an economic disincentive and instability.

If striking workers are paid, they will likely strike again.

Why are most strikes in Cambodia deemed wildcat strikes?

Normally, there is a procedure for strikes whereby unions, having collected the votes of the majority of their members, inform the factory management of their intention to strike.

This gives the management time to find a resolution.

But this procedure is not followed in our country, as almost 100 per cent of workers do not adhere to it. I am concerned that if we do not take steps to control this issue, it will continue.

What is the solution?

The solution is to take strict action against both parties to create a level playing field. The government and relevant institutions need to strengthen enforcement of the law.

But the law itself is not the problem. The problem is its implementation. For example, when employers do not follow the Labour Law’s requirements on dismissing employees or adhere to standards on workplace safety.

The government has the power to strengthen the relationship between both parties, and to guide them on the correct path.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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