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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Labor pains as union leader sacked

Labor pains as union leader sacked

labor.jpg
labor.jpg

Garment industry laborers work at stitching machines in a Kandal province factory some 15km north of Phnom Penh. Cambodia has more than 285,000 garment workers, 95 percent of whom are women.

T

he expulsion of Chhorn Sokha from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic

Union (CCAWDU) has sent shock waves through the organized labor community and cast

doubt on the future of one of the garment industry's most visible and vocal female

leaders.

The dismissal, and its subsequent backlash, has labor officials concerned about in-fighting

in the already factious realm of garment factory unions and raises questions about

the transparency of internal union disputes.

"Whether the charges are true or not, it isn't good for the trade union movement,"

said Nuon Rithy, project manager for the International Labor Organization's Worker

Education Project. "This is still a question mark."

Sokha, vice-president and co-founder of CCAWDU, was sacked on February 5 from the

union federation over internal allegations that she accepted $2,500 from Minister

of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng.

"After the committee met three or four time on the case, it was finally decided

to dismiss Chhorn Sokha after they found out she was involved with taking money,"

said CCAWDU President Ath Thon.

After the decision, labor groups and human rights NGOs blasted the removal and called

for a transparent review of the case, but as yet there has been no investigation

and the expulsion stands.

"We question the decision and we have registered our concerns with CCAWDU and

the ILO basically asking for a review of the case; but its up to the CCAWDU and its

sticking to its decision - she's out," said Alonzo Suson, country program director

for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. "We support Sokha

as an individual but we respect the right for the union federation to conduct its

own business."

Sokha called the expulsion "an act of jealousy" and maintained that her

frequent protests against Ith Sam Heng, and repeated calls for him to step down from

his post, discredit the charges that she accepted money.

"Based on law, the decision is illegal," Sokha told the Post. "Based

on society it is an injustice to me. Ath Thon acted to get me out of CCAWDU because

he was jealous. For this he has three reasons. First, because I checked the receipts

from 2005 and found some that he had faked. Second, he is jealous of my popularity

because I am a woman leader. The third point is that my group will organize for the

union elections and he is concerned he cannot defeat me."

Although the majority of labor leaders have chosen not take to sides in an internal

union affair, some have come forward to defend Sokha.

"Among the female union leaders Chhorn Sokha is the best," said Chuon Mom

Thol, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and Cambodian Union

Federation, "My idea is that she was expelled because she was more popular than

her president. It is normal when the deputy has more popularity than the director

that the director gets unhappy. Chhorn Sokha was the one invited to go abroad, not

Ath Thon.

But Thon says the committee investigated the case accurately, and was dismissive

of Sokha's comments.

"She might as well speak her personal feelings," Thon said. "It is

like the dog that cannot find an exit so it turns to bite people. I did not dismiss

her, the committee did. I do not have any jealousy toward her. In fact I motivated

her as a woman to have a good future by advising her to work better."

In an industry that employs more than 285,000 workers - 95 percent of whom are female,

and with roughly 125,000 registered in unions - many considered Sokha an important

role model.

"She is one of the young leaders who has really developed," said Suson.

"She started as a garment worker and now she's earned her college degree and

speaks in front of large crowds. She's articulate on the issues. She's traveled.

She's really one of the success stories in the garment industry."

According to Suson, CCAWDU has a formidable reputation as well. He said it is a very

solid union and has a good record on human rights.

"The union was her life," he said. "But she's said she's cried her

tears already and she's ready to move on. It's an unfortunate incident. It shows

how much maturing still needs to be done in the labor movement."

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