Violent workers’ strikes spearheaded by “mafia-style” trade unions are threatening the future of the Kingdom’s garment industry, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said yesterday.
Speaking at a meeting at Phnom Penh’s Chamber of Commerce yesterday, GMAC president Van Sou Ieng said it was time the government cracked down on illegal union-led strikes that could deter foreign investors.
“There is a mafia style of action being taken by the unions,” he said. “Only the government can inhibit this behaviour, [so] we’re writing a letter to [Prime Minister Hun Sen].”
Some GMAC members had called for sanctions to be put on unions that led violent strikes and they welcomed a new trade unions law that will allow the government to be more enforcer than mediator, he said.
During the meeting, which also brought together representatives from the labour recruitment association, the tourism association and the country’s chambers of commerce, GMAC issued a statement with the headline, “Unions hold factories hostage”.
The statement warned that more violent strikes could result in an exodus of international investors.
“We know from experience that issues of industrial relations, if not handled appropriately, will ultimately lead to the demise of individual enterprise and eventually the whole industry,” it states.
“Our industry has experienced hundreds if not thousands of strikes. Not one of these strikes [has] complied with procedures set out under the law.
“However, it is surprising that not one single union or worker representative that organised these strikes was ever punished and brought to task for breaking the law.”
Unions had been violent, blocked factory gates – including not letting vehicles transporting food and water through – used megaphones to hurl abuse at workers inside, thrown stones at windows and gates, burned tyres and tried to set fire to buildings during strikes, GMAC said.
The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) was one union in the firing line during the meeting.
Kong Sang, president of Evergreen Apparel in Phnom Penh, accused C.CAWDU of leading illegal strikes at his factory.
“They are not a union, but a mafia,” he said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general for GMAC, said C.CAWDU, an independent union, had disregarded an established collective bargaining agreement by striking at Evergreen earlier this year.
C.CAWDU president Ath Thorn denied his union led illegal strikes.
“We are a real union to help workers,” he said, adding the union had led just one strike this year – only after informing the workers’ employer.
Dave Welsh, country director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, said GMAC was focused on cracking down on a section of the labour movement it didn’t want to bargain with: independent unions.
“Sanctions are exactly the wrong move,” he said, adding that “draconian” measures targeted at unions would hurt the industry.
A strike could be deemed illegal if the mediation process that was meant to precede it did not occur; however, the government didn’t always provide mediators before workers went on strike, Welsh said.
He also questioned GMAC’s claims that strikes scared international investors.
“Fainting, overtime issues – it’s these things brands will get panicky about,” he said. Strikes per se are not the problem.
GMAC also issued statistics yesterday showing the number of strikes and the number of lost working days decreased significantly from 2010 to 2011, even as the industry expanded.
Despite these figures, Loo defended the association’s plea to the government, saying the association should have raised concerns sooner.
“We’re not looking at year by year, we’re looking at raw figures,” he said. “It’s come to a breaking point. It’s what’s been happening – for the past 10 years. Every investor we meet, one of the first two questions they ask is ‘strike?’”
“This is something that is high on the minds of investors and affects their decisions to invest,” he said, adding that some had changed their minds about investing in Cambodia or had not expanded here as a result.
Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said the law stated the ministry must help to resolve issues as a mediator.
“If it’s not able to be negotiated, we send it to the Arbitration Council,” he said. “If there is violence, we pay attention to it . . . but other authorities take action.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Shane Worrell and Chhay Channyda at [email protected]