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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Groups tell ILO to retract ‘right to strike’ claim

A protester throws a Molotov cocktail at authorities on Veng Sreng Boulevard during violent clashes in Phnom Penh last month
A protester throws a Molotov cocktail at authorities on Veng Sreng Boulevard during violent clashes in Phnom Penh last month. POST STAFF

Groups tell ILO to retract ‘right to strike’ claim

An employers and businesses federation that took out paid newspaper advertisements claiming Cambodia’s workers have no fundamental right to strike has hit back at the International Labour Organization (ILO), asking it to retract comments it made in response to the ads.

Last week, the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations (CAMFEBA) and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) began running ads in local media, including the Post, saying the public had been misled over the right to strike following deadly protests in the garment sector last month.

“The right to strike is not provided for in … [the ILO’s Convention 87 on Freedom of Association] and was not intended to be.… Is the right to strike therefore a fundamental right? NO. The right to strike is NOT a fundamental right,” the ads say.

Tim de Meyer, a senior international labour law specialist for the ILO in Bangkok, rejected the argument last Wednesday.

“The claims that the right to strike is not a fundamental right and that C. 87 does not establish a right to strike are not consistent with the position taken by the International Labour Organization and its tripartite constituency as a whole (i.e. governments, employers and workers) over a period of at least the last 60+ years,” he wrote in an email.

In a letter to the ILO’s Decent Work team regional director Maurizio Bussi, signed by CAMFEBA vice-president Sandra D’Amico on Monday and later obtained by the Post, CAMFEBA accuses the ILO, through de Meyer’s comments, of creating tension and spreading misinformation.

The federation makes a “request for ILO to retract comments and make a clear statement that remarks in The Phnom Penh Post do not reflect global developments, tripartite consensus or interpretation of right to strike and convention 87”, the letter says.

“Not only has ILO made an explicit statements [sic] to undermine employers’ credibility with untrue information, but is creating tensions as a result. This is not what we aspire too [sic].”

CAMFEBA’s letter takes aim at de Meyer’s comment that the ILO’s “Governing Body (ie, the International Labour Office’s tripartite executive council) has always regarded the right to strike as a fundamental right of workers and of their organizations”.

“The International Labour Conference (ILC) in 2013 in the Committee of Application and Standards (CAS) was extremely clear that there is absolutely no consensus regarding right to strike and convention 87,” the letter says. “The fact that the ILO makes a statement (claiming tripartite consensus) is extremely harmful and not a true representation of what is happening globally.”

Contacted yesterday, D’Amico, from CAMFEBA, which represents more than 1,500 employers, said she had yet to receive a response to the letter.

“My expectation is that there will simply be a retraction, because the comments provided do not reflect what is happening at an international level,” she said.

Employers, she continued, do not agree that convention 87 guarantees a right to strike – but that doesn’t mean that CAMFEBA does not “respect the rights of workers”.

“There’s a big difference,” she said, adding that freedom of association was a fundamental right and the whole issue around the right to strike was “very complex”.

Garment workers went on strike in late December, demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month. Relations between strikers and authorities soon turned ugly, resulting in security forces shooting dead four people on January 3 and serious injuries being inflicted on protesters and authorities.

The aim of the subsequent ads about striking – which do not mention that the right to strike is guaranteed under Cambodia’s labour law and constitution – was aimed at helping the public understand ILO convention 87, D’Amico said.

She added that the media was guilty of taking a one-sided and sensationalist stance in its reporting of last month’s violence by failing to mention that unions sparked clashes.

“It’s not good enough just to shout ‘human rights’.… There’s no acknowledgement that … the violence started in the unions. The six unions are absolutely responsible.”

Those unions include the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the Free Trade Union and the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, which deny responsibility for the violence.

Negative response to the ads – which also emphasise that legal action can be taken against violent unions – was contributing to the rights of employers, not unions and workers, being “restricted”, D’Amico said.

“We are being pushed to not take legal action against people who [are violent],” she said, adding criticism had come from rights groups such as Solidarity Center.

Dave Welsh, country manager for that organisation, said last week that he was concerned the approach of CAMFEBA and GMAC could lead to mass litigation against unions.

He said he stood by his comments yesterday.

“In the context of an industry where … union leaders are being fired, I tend to think of a conversation about rights being abused as not being about employers but workers,” he said. “It’s hard to know what audience is being targeted here.”

Bussi said he had received CAMFEBA’s letter but would not elaborate. De Meyer also declined to comment.

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