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Factory workers protest in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district late last year, calling for an increase to the garment industry’s minimum wage.
Factory workers protest in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district late last year, calling for an increase to the garment industry’s minimum wage. Heng Chivoan

Ministry defends wage law

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour has defended the first draft of a new universal minimum wage law – which was widely criticised earlier this week as having a potentially chilling effect on unions and civil society – saying that the draft’s most controversial provisions were drawn from pre-existing legislation.

Though the law would allow for Cambodia’s first-ever minimum wage for workers outside the garment sector, trade union leaders and civil society members this week expressed concerns over articles 25 and 26, which carry stiff fines for dissent to or obstruction of decisions by the minimum wage council. Under the law, the tripartite council would deliberate and set the minimum wage each year.

“If people are complaining about the draft law, then they should complain about the penalties in the Labour Law,” Sour said yesterday, going on to say that similar provisions also existed in the Trade Union Law. He added that none of the union leaders at a presentation of the draft to stakeholders on Monday expressed alarm at the fines.

“If there’s a complaint, they should have raised it yesterday or on December 16,” Sour said, referring to an upcoming meeting of stakeholders to discuss the draft.

Specifically addressing Article 26 of the draft, which would set a 10 million riel ($2,500) fine for anyone inciting “activities against the declaration of the minimum wage council”, he said that the council’s declarations would constitute a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as codified under the Trade Union Law.

CBAs, he continued, are “legally binding, and if other unions go against them, then they are breaking the law”. Observers, however, took little comfort yesterday in Sour’s reassurance that these measures were already on the books, with one noting that the laws in question had been passed over widespread objections from stakeholders.

“We find all these laws . . . restrictive and detrimental to people’s rights to express and raise key issues affecting millions,” said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at rights group Licadho.

“An annual assessment of the minimum wage is long overdue. However, we question the inclusion of heavy fines potentially punishing workers, unions and NGOs. Vague provisions threatening large fines for ‘creating obstacles’ and ‘incitement’ will probably be used to target unions and workers and must be removed.”

Piseth Duch, advocacy director and coordinator of the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights’ Business and Human Rights project, was equally concerned and said that while complaints had been raised by civil society over similar articles in pre-existing laws, they were often ignored by the government.

In an email yesterday, he suggested that the proposed fines could deter union leaders from organising strikes or protests.“If these fines are approved, [they] would not be consistent with international human rights standards, especially [International Labour Organization] conventions.”

But the Labour Ministry’s Sour dismissed concerns that the right to strike or protest would be curtailed. “Any strike or demonstration that is allowed by law could still take place,” he said.

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