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Job losses ‘discrimination’

121219 02
A strike at Kwei Yang garment factory in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district in January. The protesters were demanding the reinstatement of seven union leaders they claim were unfairly sacked. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

More than 60 union leaders lost their jobs at garment factories in the past nine months for trying to unionise co-
workers, their representatives claimed yesterday.

Fourteen members of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions endured threats, discrimination and ultimately a message they were no longer welcome at work after revealing their union activity, CATU president Yang Sophorn said.

“The companies at times tried to convince union leaders they would renew their contracts if they stopped their activity, but they refused and were essentially sacked,” she said.

Oun Lina, an official from the Free Trade Union, which along with CATU has been reported as having links with opposition parties, told a similar story.

“More than 30 union leaders lost their jobs when they formed a union,” she said.

Lina said the workers had not been sacked, but their contracts had not been renewed.

“We sent a letter to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia [GMAC] asking them to investigate their member factories about this,” she said.

The independent Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) complained of 20 union leaders losing their jobs.

“It was discrimination against our union, disguised as them not renewing contracts,” Um Visal, C.CAWDU labour dispute resolution officer, said.

“It’s very different between the pro-government unions and a union like mine,” Visal said. “We never see pro-government union members sacked.”

Kim Chansamnang, president of the Trade Union Workers’ Federation of Progress and Democracy (TUWFPD), a union widely believed to be pro-government, said that none of his union members had been sacked this year – nor had they organised any strikes.

“We work closely and smoothly with the companies,” he said yesterday. “We always sit and talk to find a resolution.”

Chansamnang is also deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian Council of National Unions (CCNU), which represents more than 75 per cent of the industry and negotiated with GMAC over the current Memorandum of Understanding.

Speaking to the Post in June, Chamsamnang dismissed suggestions CCNU was aligned with the ruling CPP.

Demands to reinstate dismissed union leaders have topped the lists of workers’ conditions in numerous strikes this year. But factory officials have rejected accusations they have fired workers for political or union affiliations.

Amid such claims, Thun Bunny, administrative manager at Conpress Holdings in the capital’s Meanchey district, said last month that the company had simply not renewed the contracts of some union leaders.

Chea Sovan Chansambath, Nex-T Apparel administrative manager, also denied allegations of discrimination, following demands to reinstate three union leaders at her Phnom Penh factory.

“We finished their contract because their work was not good enough and we received complaints from their team leader,” she said this month.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but has said his organisation is not concerned with unions’ political affiliations.

Co-author of Building Unions in Cambodia: History, Challenges, Strategies, Veasna Nuon, said his research had uncovered examples of union leaders being dismissed after they had formed unions, but had not conclusively shown whether this was based on political affiliation.

“I think the industrial relations movement is still young, and at the factory level some people are not ready to work with trade unions,” he said.

Yim Serey Vathanak, the national co-ordinator of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) trade unions project, said pro-government and company-aligned, or “yellow,” unions seemed to enjoy less discrimination from employers.

“Yellow unions still have some campaigns to squeeze benefits from employers,” he said. “But they experience much less termination than the others – they don’t have strong demands. Still, I think that most of the [strong] demands from a union like C.CAWDU are reasonable.”

Vathanak said Cambodia was a regional leader when it came to ratifying ILO conventions – including freedom of association and collective-bargaining bills – but implementation was being held back by employers who feared unions.

Sath Samuth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said the factories in question were not at fault if they asked someone to leave when their contract was over.

“Unions should send their cases to us. We will intervene if they have a problem,” he said.

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