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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strike debate a ‘red herring’

UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai leaves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai leaves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation yesterday after his unofficial meeting with Secretary of State Ouch Borith. Hong Menea

Strike debate a ‘red herring’

Workers undoubtedly have the fundamental right to strike, and any arguments as to whether such rights exist are merely “red herring debates”, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai said yesterday.

Kiai, who today will wrap up his three-day unofficial visit to the Kingdom, made the comments after paying a “courtesy call” on Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the main purpose of which was to ask the government to invite him on an official visit to Cambodia, he said.

Speaking outside the foreign ministry, Kiai told reporters that the right to strike has for generations been globally recognised as a fundamental tool of unions and workers, and “cannot, and must not” be taken away from them.

“Under international law … there is a right to assembly and to assemble peacefully for any purpose. Now … assembly can be a protest, assembly can be in a room, assembly can be a strike, it can be a sit-down,” he said.

“So there is absolutely a right to strike, let me make it clear … and I’m sure it’s protected by the ILO conventions. There is no need; it doesn’t make any sense to have a union if it can’t strike. Then what will the unions do apart from picking money from the workers?”

His comments come after the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations (CAMFEBA) and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) accused the International Labour Organization of undermining employers’ credibility and “creating tensions” by rejecting statements made by those associations that no such “fundamental” right exists.

Seperately, Kiai said he had raised strong concerns with the government about the “blanket ban” on public assembly imposed in the aftermath of violent clashes between striking workers and authorities in early January, an approach that he emphasised was not recommended.

“If there is any violence in a protest, the right approach is to find the people that are violent, take them out of the protest and prosecute them. But a protest or a gathering or an assembly or a demonstration is not violent by the fact that some people are violent in there,” he said.

A lifting of the temporary ban was being “considered” by the government, Kiai said he had been told, though no specific date as to when that might happen was given.

He added that he saw no reason why the government would not invite him to make an official visit to the Kingdom.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that the government wished to solve numerous issues – such as that of garment workers’ minimum wage – through discussions, in order to ease tensions, before the ban on assembly could be lifted.

“We wish to have a peaceful atmosphere to solve that issue. We understand that those organised demonstrations, they always challenge with the government. The purpose is not to solve the issue of minimum wage,” he said.

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