CAMBODIA continued to be a “repressive” environment for labour activists in 2009, despite the existence of relatively progressive legislation, according to a new report from United States-based watchdog Freedom House.
In the report, released on Tuesday in Washington, the group said Cambodia had laws in place that guaranteed labour rights, but that implementation continued to be lacking.
“Despite the fairly robust legal framework, enforcement of labour laws is weak,” the report said. “Anti-union harassment, dismissal of union leaders and supporters, and violence by vigilantes are common.”
The labour report, the first of its kind produced by Freedom House, also cited recent moves to amend Cambodia’s labour laws to allow for the increased use of short-term contracts, which it says discourage workers from supporting trade unions.
“The government has enjoyed increasing success in attractive private investment to Cambodia, and appears to favour the interests of investors and employers over workers‘ rights,” it concluded.
The report also decried the unsolved murders of union leaders including former Free Trade Union head Chea Vichea, who was gunned down outside a newspaper stand in 2004.
In Asia, Cambodia was rated alongside Afghanistan, China and Singapore as “repressive”, with Burma, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam given the lowest classification, “very repressive”.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, said he agreed with the report’s main findings, especially its concerns about the use of short-term contracts.
At a Kampong Chhnang garment factory where dozens of workers fainted on the job last month, he said, workers told him they dared not stop for fear that their three-month contracts would be cancelled.
“My assessment is that if they let such a situation continue, working conditions will get worse,” he said.
Moeun Tola said that as long as Chea Vichea’s killing remained unsolved, the work of union activists would continue to be a “nightmare”.
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the Freedom House findings did not reflect the specifics of Cambodia’s situation.
Phay Siphan said that during the global economic downturn, the government had tried hard to “balance labour and employment”, and that it was still pursuing the killers of Chea Vichea.
“We have to try as much as possible to maintain employment for our people,” he said.
Later this month, more than 60,000 garment workers plan to hold a one-week strike in response to the refusal of the Ministry of Labour and industry groups to renegotiate the sector’s newly established minimum wage. The wage was increased by US$5 to $61 per month in July, but unions are demanding that it be raised to as much as $93.