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Garment workers gather near the Yakjin factory during a strike in Kambol village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh
Garment workers gather near the Yakjin factory during a strike in Kambol village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in early January. Heng Chivoan

End the ‘union-busting’: HRW

As well as needing to lift a ban on public demonstrations and to release 23 detained activists and workers, the government must act to stop garment factories from discriminating against unions and those trying to join them, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

The NGO said that workers from 35 of 55 factories it surveyed last year reported discrimination against unions since 2012, as well as retaliatory action against their members.

“While many workers have joined unions, others said they wanted to set up or join independent unions but feared they would lose their jobs if they did so,” HRW said in a statement.

The results of the survey of about 200 garment workers come after a month of unrest that included security forces shooting dead four people on January 3 and declaring a ban on public gatherings.

Furthermore, more than 100 union representatives have been fired for demonstrating, and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) last week claimed workers had no fundamental right to strike – a position later rejected by the International Labour Organization.

“The Cambodian government should ensure that garment factories stop deploying union-busting strategies and respect workers’ rights,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, adding that GMAC itself and brands also have major parts to play.

“Global apparel brands need to make sure their suppliers allow workers to form independent unions without interference, and that union representatives can be in factories without threats and retaliation,” he said.

Central to the anti-union activity, HRW said, is factories’ use of fixed-duration contracts, which employers often threaten not to renew if workers join independent unions.

Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center, said that HRW’s observations showed a “broad assault” on union rights was increasing.

“With threats against unions, imprisonment of union leaders and hundreds of sackings … it’s incredibly hostile and aggressive,” he said.

Although not an evocative issue, the use of fixed-duration contracts was causing widespread problems, he added.

“It’s happening with the full acquiescence of the brands … and is completely illegal. It touches on every aspect of workers’ rights. Any time a worker works for more than two years, they should be given an unlimited-duration contract.”

Ken Loo, GMAC secretary-general, said he could not deny that “some incidents” of discrimination against unions were happening.

“But GMAC does not support it and our doors are open to the unions to bring them to our attention and we will investigate,” he said.

However, Loo said member factories did comply with the law – which he claimed does not specify that the use of fixed-duration contracts must be restricted to two years per worker.

Vong Sovann, from the Ministry of Social Affairs’ strike resolution committee, said the banning of public demonstrations was not intended to target unions, while a Ministry of Labour spokesman could not be reached.

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