After union leader Rong Chhun reiterated his plans to lead teachers on a one-week strike beginning on Monday, a letter signed by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng obtained yesterday threatens to de-register one of his unions, the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA).
According to Kheng’s letter, dated December 27, Chhun, who is president of both CITA and its parent, the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, has been serving a political party – the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – and stoking “illegal” protests.
“If the president acts in contrast with the [ministry’s] stature, it will take action and remove CITA out of the ministry’s list.
In a letter to the ministry sent on Tuesday, Chhun confirmed his intention to hold a mass strike calling for a $250 minimum wage for teachers, coinciding with ongoing CNRP rallies.
“Teachers will hold it at their own schools – they will go to school but not teach,” he wrote. “We have our 10,700 members … but we hope that all the teachers in the country will join us.”
The threat of government action is the second against Chhun since widespread garment strikes began last week in protest against what was at first only a $15 wage increase for garment workers and has since increased by $5 – to $100 including a health bonus.
A letter from the Ministry of Labour last week said Chhun faced immediate legal action because the CCU is not registered with that ministry and therefore not formally recognised as a union group.
In June 2012, the government shot down the CCU’s bid for formal recognition as a trade union confederation, largely because, through CITA, it represents teachers, who under the labour law are not allowed to organise and collectively bargain.
Chhun said at the time that denying teachers and civil servants these rights violated ILO conventions.
Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center, agreed, saying yesterday that the government’s threats of legal action against Chhun were “completely misleading”.
“It goes back to first principles. [If Chhun] is doing something technically illegal, it’s only because Cambodia is breaking laws in the first place,” he said. “The denial of registration of that union [CCU] is politically motivated and a complete violation of the labour law.”
Welsh added that the government needed to stop “holding teachers hostage for political reasons”.
But Minister of Education Hang Chuon Narong said it was Chhun who was playing politics.
“It’s purely political,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, could not be reached yesterday.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, said CITA faced de-registration if Chhun had acted in the interests of a political party.
“But it if it’s to serve the public, it would be OK,” he said. “It is not wrong to demand wage increases for workers and teachers,” he said.