A Khmer-language version of the ASEAN Social Charter that aims to standardize the
rights of workers across Southeast Asia was launched in Phnom Penh on January 27,
two years after the idea was first conceived in a riverside restaurant.
The charter calls on governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
employers, trade unions and civil societies to respect and promote workers rights.
The Social Charter was drafted by the ASEAN Trade Union Council with input from government
officials, academics, NGOs, and trade unionists, including murdered activist Chea
The idea for the charter was born out of a meeting at the FCC restaurant in Phnom
Penh. The proposal was to define common principles and rights in areas such as employment
stability, health and safety, and social security.
Under the blueprint that has developed, rates of pay will vary across the region
according to each country's economic development.
The Social Charter was released at a workshop at Phnom Penh's Sunway Hotel on January
27, as part of the rolling out of the plan across the ten ASEAN members.
ASEAN members are Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma (Myanmar),
the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
During an open forum, local trade union leaders asked what the benefits for Cambodian
workers were of ASEAN membership and the social charter. They said worker intimidation,
unpaid overtime and late payments are rife in some of Cambodia's industries.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, asked Charles
Santiago, a globalization and trade consultant, if complaints about violations of
workers' rights could be made to ASEAN if Cambodia adopted the Social Charter.
On January 22, Chhun marked the first anniversary of Vichea's death by marching from
a trade union office to the newsstand where the leader was shot, claiming that "true
killers" had not faced justice.
"Civil society has no redress to the ASEAN Secretariat," said Santiago
in response, encouraging trade unions and governments to work together.
"Lots of studies clearly indicate when labor works with business prosperity
is higher," said Santiago. "But animosity [often] leads to ideological
Santiago said the contracting of labor by brokers, not companies, was a concern in
the region. He said workers were often responsible for their own medical expenses
if injured at work and there were no retirement funds or other benefits.
"Now you really work at the whims and fancies of your employer," said Santiago.
Women who became pregnant were particularly vulnerable under short-term work arrangements
and some women were given pregnancy tests before being hired, said Santiago.
But Santiago said the plight of workers would begin to improve once political will
existed on the part of civil societies and governments in ASEAN nations.
"Cambodia is a very poor country," said Lay Vannak, from the ASEAN Department
of the Office of the Council of Ministers. "[But] it does not mean the government
rejects wage increases."
Instead, Vannak said minimum wages would have to be increased step by step.
Norbert von Hofmann, representative of the German NGO Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, said
Cambodia's labor laws were "strong" compared with other nations in the
region and the Social Charter would not replace the responsibilities of the government.
"Responsibility for [the charter's] implementation rests with your National
Chap Sotharith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and
Peace (CICP), said "I think the charter will please employees but probably not
He said that improving the welfare of the people would lead to more investment.
"[But] the charter is just a framework. There is more detail to be done,"
said Sotharith. "It is a starting point."