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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Union dispute exposes collusion

Union dispute exposes collusion

OFFICIALS from the Free Trade Union (FTU) will file assault charges against

leaders of the Cambodian Union Federation (CUF) after violence outside the

Trinunggal Komara garment factory on March 21.

The FTU's George McLeod

added that his union would also petition the International Labor Organisation

(ILO) to withdraw its recognition of the CUF, which he described as "a tool to

destroy the independent labor movement".

Observers said the conflict

highlighted a growing problem within the country's labor movement, with some

players colluding with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MoSALVY) to

circumvent the law.

"The incident at Trinunggal shows us how companies,

unions and the ministry collude to shut out the activist unions," said Jason

Judd, country representative of the American Center for International Labor


McLeod said CUF representatives assaulted him while he tried

to photograph industrial action outside the factory. He said CUF president

Chhoun Mom Thol tried to confiscate both his and Judd's cameras.


incident arose after FTU members were barred from union elections despite

claiming a majority of members at the factory. The FTU said up to 80 percent of

the 1,000 employees boycotted the vote.

The factory's Indonesian owners

only permitted candidates from the allegedly CPP-linked CUF to stand in the

March 22 election. The CUF has been accused of having little desire to advance

its members' interests.

The factory's major buyer, US-based The GAP

clothing company, has since stepped to broker new elections. McLeod said

discussions on new elections were ongoing.

CUF's Mom Thol denied any

collusion and claimed his union was acting within the law.

"There was a

declaration from [MoSALVY] following to Article 288 of the Labor Law," he said.

"The union with the majority presence at the factory has the right [to field

election candidates] and CUF's position is backed 100 percent by


The FTU disputed that interpretation and also disagreed with Mom

Thol's assertion that his union had the majority of members at the


"If they believe they have the majority of members then they

should be happy to test that at a free and fair election," said


He said the union movement is divided between nearly a dozen

unions, some of whom collude with factories against the interests of their


He claimed that while the CUF focused on complying with owners'

wishes, other unions were run more like extortion rackets where only the

leadership benefited from industrial action.

"It's becoming more

widespread, and a real problem for the independent unions," McLeod said. "These

unions will call a strike, make unreasonable demands and then take a payoff to

end the action.

"It's bad for the industry, bad for the credibility of

the union movement and now workers are becoming very cynical about the ways in

which they are being used."

Honey Mindanao of the Luen Thai factory is on

the executive council of the Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia

(GMAC). She confirmed some unions routinely made demands for


"Some unions are slowly getting more responsible but others act

just like a business," she said.

By way of example, she said, the Luen

Thai factory negotiated the settlement of a labor dispute with the FTU in March

2002, only to find that a second union hijacked a small group of workers and

demanded separate negotiations.

She said that group, led by Morm Nhim of

the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, blockaded factory

gates, lit bonfires and manufactured petrol bombs before demanding a meeting

with management.

"This was not the recognized union at Luen Thai and the

FTU had agreed the strike was improper," she said. Despite that, she said, Nhim

only offered to end the strike if "severance pay" of "seven or eight thousand

dollars" was paid.

Nhim denied that: "I never demanded any cent from

anyone. We are never involved, with those who offer bribes," she


Mindanao acknowledged that factory collusion in pay-offs

contributed to the problem.

"It's a very serious debate within GMAC. We

can't compel factory owners not to solve the problem in this way, but we are

trying to educate them to deal with unreasonable unions without resorting to

payoffs," said Mindanao.

Other GMAC members were less insistent.

Assistant secretary-general David Van preferred to play down the problem saying

payoffs were a "private affair" between individuals and factories. GMAC was

happy simply to see disputes resolved.

"I guess in any business you have

some black sheep but this is the reality of the problem. We cannot impose a

solution," said Van. "There may well be cases like this, but this is a

case-by-case problem between factory managers and workers. Our message to our

members is that no matter what happens there must be dialog."

Judd said

moves toward collective bargaining agreements would root out corrupt


"I think it's a sideshow," he said. "These shenanigans just

belong to the government unions. Workers can figure out which unions are bona

fide. Most unions are busy organizing workers and busy bargaining."



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