EMPLOYERS and union leaders gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday to discuss a draft law on trade unions that the Ministry of Labour says could go into effect next year.
The draft law, a version of which obtained in late May contained 17 chapters, represents a significant expansion of the legal framework surrounding the Kingdom’s trade unions, including guidelines to collective bargaining and guarantees of workers’ rights to form and join unions. In contrast, the 1997 Labour Law, currently in effect, contains union regulations in just one chapter.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he worried about a provision in the draft law that allows for the designation of a “most representative” union with “the exclusive right to negotiate” in collective bargaining on behalf of workers throughout an industry. Coalitions may also be formed for this purpose.
“The law limits the freedom of unions,” Rong Chhun said, and added that he hoped for more opportunities to discuss the draft law in the future.
Employers may welcome the “most representative” rule, however, as they say the sheer number of unions currently in operation can be a barrier to the swift resolution of disputes. There were 237 unions operating in the garment sector alone last year, an October 2009 International Labour Organisation report found – almost one for every factory open at the time.
Vong Sovan, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions, said he hoped the government would remove a provision requiring unions to disclose their finances.
“The law may ask the union to be transparent with its members – that’s okay,” Vong Sovan said. “The requirement to send financial statements to the Ministry should not be included.”
The CCTU president said that strikers should not receive criminal penalties in the case of a labour dispute. The draft law prohibits participation in “illegal” strikes, though no penalty has yet been listed for this offence.
“In case of strikes or protests in a labour dispute, the law should not include criminal punishments that could lead to union representatives being arrested,” Vong Sovan said.
But Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the manufacturing sector was in desperate need of a legal framework to bring order to work stoppages.
“There has to be a clear distinction between wildcat strikes and strikes,” Loo said. “There is no punishment for organising strikes – there is punishment for organising an illegal strike.”
In a series of incidents over the past few weeks, thousands of workers in the garment sector have staged wildcat strikes in protest over a US$5 increase in the industry’s minimum wage finalised earlier this month. Many unionists say the increase is insufficient.
On Tuesday, riot police armed with electric batons clashed with an estimated 3,000 garment workers in Sen Sok district protesting the dismissal of a union representative.
“In all the years that we’ve had illegal strikes in Cambodia, which has been since the beginning of time, there has not been a single strike that has been declared legally,” Loo said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE