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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Critics take aim at union law

Critics take aim at union law

Garment workers protest outside a Phnom Penh factory during a wave of strikes in September, which saw thousands of workers voice demands for a higher minimum wage.

Civil society and union representatives have expressed concerns about the latest draft of the Kingdom’s first law on trade unions, ahead of a three-day consultation meeting set to begin today.

The latest version of the proposed law, circulated by the Ministry of Labour this month and obtained by The Post today, follows an initial draft released by the ministry in June.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the new draft was “worse” than the initial one in terms of the kinds of restrictions it could impose on the rights of workers to organise.

“I want to emphasise that the freedom of trade unions is in danger,” he said.

Moeun Tola said his main concerns were that the law in its current form would make it difficult for unions to register with the Labour Ministry.

If they did receive certification, he added, they would not be able to “freely exercise” their role as unions because they could be “dissolved any time by the court or Ministry of Labour”.

The concerns echo those raised following the release of the initial draft in June. Critics had expressed concerns about provisions requiring the designation of a “most representative” union with the “exclusive right” to negotiate on behalf of workers throughout an industry.

Criticism was also directed at requirements that unions file financial reports with the government each year.

Some also expressed worries that the draft law’s prohibition of participation in “illegal” strikes could lead some unionists to face criminal charges.

All three provisions have been carried over to the latest version of the draft law, according to an unofficial translation seen by The Post.

Rong Chhun, the head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, expressed frustration with the consultation process today, claiming that suggestions made by union representatives last year had not been incorporated into the latest draft of the law.

“I read the draft law and I didn’t see anything change after we suggested that they change some points,” he said, adding that he did not expect this week’s meeting to be any more productive than previous consultations.

“I think there will have to be a movement from the union or the workers to demand the law is corrected,” he said.

The law would be “useless” for workers and their representatives if the ministry failed to consider their suggestions, Rong Chhun added.

“I think the freedom of unions will be ended when this law is approved, if it does not change through the [suggestions of] unionists,” he said.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said today that there had been “significant changes to certain articles” of the draft law following consultations last year.

He said the draft law in its latest form “clarifies where the labour law was inadequate” and offers better protection to both workers and employers.

Huon Soeur, deputy director of the Labour Ministry’s Department of Labour Disputes, said this week would be the last opportunity for union, industry and civil society representatives to meet with officials to discuss the law.

He said the ministry had already considered unions’ demands following consultations last year.

He declined to comment, however, on whether any of the suggestions had been incorporated into the latest version of the draft law.

He also declined to give a timeline for the passage of the draft law.

“I can’t say when to expect this draft law will be finalised or approved,” he said.

“To create a new law is not too easy to do. We have to do it carefully because we need to talk to each other in order to get a good law.”

John Ritchotte, a labour relations specialist at the International Labour Organisation, said today that it would be “premature” for him to comment on the draft law at this stage, but noted that the ILO would submit official comments to the Labour Ministry “within the next few months”.

“The ministry has informed the ILO that it will request official comments from the ILO,” he said.

“It’s standard procedure for the ILO to submit comments on draft legislation, if so requested by an ILO member state.”

David Welsh, country director for the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, said a strong trade union law could help prevent the sort of large-scale strikes that broke out in September, which broke out after a hike in the minimum wage fell far short of unions’ demands.

“We saw the frustration that happened in September,” Walsh said today.

“Had the law been in place in September, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.”



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