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Clinton talks labour rights at ASEAN

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote address in Siem Reap on July 13, 2012. Photograph: AFP PHOTO / POOL / Brendan Smialowski

The rights of workers to form and join unions and collectively bargain were a top priority for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to a Lower Mekong gender policy dialogue in Siem Reap on Friday, held as part of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Secretary Clinton addressed a 200-strong delegation and stressed the importance of protecting and promoting labour rights both in the formal and informal sectors in Southeast Asia.

One of her focuses was the Kingdom’s proposed trade-union law, which has been at the Council of Ministers in draft form since November.

“I want to commend the government of Cambodia for their draft new trade law that could be a model for the region,” she said.

“It would extend rights and protections to domestic workers, it would allow people to join unions, and if this law is passed and enforced, it will set a very strong standard for the rest of the region,” she said, additionally highlighting the need for a regional framework to protect the rights and dignity of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.

Her address followed a two-hour, closed-door sidelines meeting with Cambodian union and labour representatives – including a victim of the Bavet town garment factory shooting at a PUMA supplier on February 20 and two returned maids who had suffered abuse in Malaysia.

“Trade-union rights in Cambodia was the dominant component of discussions,” said Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, who also attended the meeting. “The US delegation was clear that justice must be delivered for victims [of labour abuses].”

The meeting was of paramount importance, as none of the women, independent union leaders or victim workers representatives at the sidelines meeting were on the government invite list for the main policy dialogue event.

Welsh said it was important for Secretary Clinton, and a US delegation that included the US ambassador-at-large for global gender issues, to hear from women on the ground – an opportunity Clinton herself highlighted in her keynote address to the policy dialogue.

“In the late 1990s [Cambodia], was emerging out of years of war and economic ruin, nearly 80 per cent of Cambodia made a very meagre living by subsistence farming,” she said, highlighting the role her husband Bill Clinton’s administration played in paving the way for growth of the garment sector via a US-Cambodia trade agreement inked during his time as president.

“Where there was once just a handful of state-owned textile and apparel factories employing only a few thousand workers, within 10 years, there were hundreds of new factories providing jobs for more than 350,000 Cambodians, mostly young women who migrated from poor rural communities to earn wages far above the average of what would have otherwise been available to them,” Clinton said.

“But that agreement wasn’t perfect. There are certainly, as I have heard, problems in garment factories across the country,” she said. “Governments have to modernise labour laws to respect workers’ rights and ensure that men and women have fair, safe working conditions and can earn a living wage.”

Opposition Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian and advocate Mu Sochua, who attended the policy dialogue as a delegate, said Clinton’s message to Cambodia and investors was very clear: stop the violation of workers’ rights.

“The labour force wants a living wage, and until they get that, they will continue to strike. And who loses in the long run? The investors, society is losing,” Sochua said.

Clinton was well aware of the trouble in Cambodia’s garment sector, Sochua said, referring to an incident in which police allegedly beat a union employee during a protest in the capital on Wednesday.

“The day [Clinton] came in, she was greeted by what – a union staffer bloodied by the police. That has to stop,” she said. “Dignity is a living wage, not $5 at the time, but protection of human rights.”

The living wage campaign, particularly in the garment industry where wages are US$61 a month, before bonuses and allowances, has become a bastion of unions in Cambodia, which are critical entities to the promotion of labour rights and economic development, Clinton stressed.

Welsh said 2012 has been an exciting year on the union front and that there has been progress on the living wage issue.

“But no one has seen a draft of the trade union law, and it is somewhat mystifying,” Welsh said. “There is a provision in there that would extend trade union rights to the informal sector … but it is eight months in the Council of Ministers,” he pointed out, agreeing with Clinton that if properly drafted and implemented it would improve the image of Cambodia.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bridget Di Certo at bridget.dicerto@phnompenhpost.com reporting from Siem Reap

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