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ILO slams kingdom on union record

People place incense in front of a framed portrait of slain labour rights leader Chea Vichea on the anniversary of his death in January 2010. Chea Vichea, who was president of the Free Trade Union, was gunned down in broad daylight on a street in Phnom Penh in 2004. Photograph: Sovan Philong/Phnom Penh Post

Adding to a growing list of foreign groups to censure the Cambodian government in the lead-up to the ASEAN Summit, the International Labour Organization yesterday ranked Cambodia among the biggest violators of the right to freedom of association.

The Cambodia section of the report, which collated 32 complaints from 21 countries earlier this month, was filed by the International Trade Union Confederation — an umbrella federation with no local affiliates.

Focusing on the murders of three trade unionists — Chea Vichea, Ros Sovannarith and Hy Vuthy —which occurred in January, 2004, May, 2004 and February, 2007, respectively, the report highlights the lack of appropriate judicial investigation in the interim.

None of the cases listed in the report, which include assaults on unionists in 2008 and arrests of activists in 2006, post-date 2010.

“As a general matter regarding all the subsequent issues, the Committee once again strongly urges the Government to take measures to ensure that the trade union rights of all workers in Cambodia are fully respected and that trade unionists are able to exercise their activities in a climate free of intimidation and risk to their personal security and their lives, and that of their families,” it notes.

The committee also takes to task for its lack of reply since its last recommendations were issued in 2011, saying it “deplores” the failure to respond.

“The Committee urges the Government to be more cooperative in the future,” the report continues.

Along with Cambodia, the cases of Ethiopia, Peru, Fiji and Argentina are highlighted “because of the extreme seriousness and urgency of the matters dealt with therein”, though the report offers no definitive criteria for the rankings.

Russia – where three local and four international unions reported numerous physical attacks, intimidation and harassment in the same general time period – did not make the cut.

Sophy Fisher, the Bangkok-based regional information officer for ILO to whom local representatives referred for comment, said she did not know why Cambodia was ranked among the bottom five.

While the ILO report focuses on a string of long-standing cases, its release yesterday raised eyebrows among government officials, who called it an over-hyped indictment.

“It’s a rhetoric campaign to take advantage of the timing. These international groups are using Cambodia for their own advantage,” said Council of Minister spokesman Phay Siphan, adding that he had no doubt the release had been timed to coincide with ASEAN.

The ILO statement comes just days after Human Rights Watch released a damning report covering what it termed “20 years of impunity”, and a bipartisan group of US members of Congress issued a letter slamming Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP for perpetrating rights violations.

Siphan called the central premise of the ILO findings regarding Cambodia’s supposed lack of freedom of association highly misleading.

“If you compare Cambodia to the other countries, people can hold any [protests], can say anything, the media is very open,” he pointed out.

Secretary of state at the Labour Ministry, Oum Mean, said the proliferation of unions over the years was proof positive of the country’s respect for freedom of association.

“I don’t want to respond to their report, except to say that the government is trying quite hard to pay attention to workers’ rights. We recognise their right to freedom of association,” he said.

“To this day, we have so many trade unions. So when they said we ban freedom of association or whatever, I don’t know what they mean.”

It is unclear where the International Trade Union Confederation complaint originated, though much of it appears to be taken verbatim from earlier filings dating back to at least 2008.

Chea Mony, President of the Free Trade Union – one of the country’s largest and most outspoken unions – said he hadn’t worked on this complaint, though he had submitted some previously following the murder of his brother Chea Vichea in 2004.

To contact the reporters on this story: Abby Seiff at
Chhay Channida at



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