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.
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
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
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
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
"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."