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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Union feud hurts workers

Union feud hurts workers

Political alliances and membership turf wars are fracturing the Kingdom's labor movement

and hampering efforts to effectively address the problems of Cambodia's garment workers.

The Sam Rainsy-backed Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC)

and the allegedly CPP-backed Cambodia Union Federation (CUF) presidents admit they

are unable to co-operate to help resolve the problems of the Kingdom's approximately

170,000 garment workers.

FTUWKC president Chea Vichea says that his relations with the CUF are seriously strained

by what he calls CUF President Chuon Mom Thol's "collusion" with factory

owners.

"When I speak up to protect the workers' rights and criticize the garment factories

owners and the government, Chuon Mom Thol is unhappy with me," he said. "When

we want to take action the CUF members always say 'Don't strike, don't strike'."

Mom Thol rejects Vichea's allegations. "I'm a former student from [a] US law

school, so I don't do crazy stuff," he said, adding that he prefers to settle

labor disputes with "...the pen, not the gun".

"I've only called five or maybe seven strikes, but that doesn't mean I don't

do my job... when my workers don't go to the factory I suffer myself, so I don't

want to be in that position," he said.

Since its inception the CUF has been alleged to be a CPP front organization to tame

and divert legitimate union-building efforts.

Mom Thol admits being a member of the CPP but challenges suggestions that he is a

CPP frontman and dependent on CPP funding.

"I have so many donors I can't tell you," Mom Thol said, adding that he

derives funding from Japanese donors as well as ongoing funds of $5,000 a quarter

from the Australian Embassy.

When contacted by the Post, however, the Australian Embassy disavowed any donor relationship

with the CUF beyond a one-time training grant in 2000. All funding to any Cambodian

unions, including the CUF, had been discontinued, an Embassy spokesman said.

The FTUWKC, meanwhile, in no way seeks to hide its links to its founder, opposition

leader Sam Rainsy, but emphasises that it is moving towards a more independent, apolitical

stance.

However FTUWKC boss Chea Vichea still refers to Rainsy as the "dean" of

their union and does not deny that the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) pays the union offices'

monthly rent and electrical bills.

Both Mom Thol and Vichea point to the case of Wing Tai garment factory union rep

Keth Socheat as evidence of the treachery and duplicity of the other.

According to Vichea, Socheat was fired on January 2 only days after becoming the

FTUWKC's Wing Tai representative. He had previously served in the same capacity for

the CUF. Socheat confirms Vichea's account of the circumstances of his sacking.

Wing Tai administration director, Long Phally, told the Post that Socheat had been

fired over a personal dispute with the CUF and the factory had eventually settled

the dispute with a $1,000 severance.

Mom Thol insists Socheat was fired for theft and for threatening to kill Wing Tai's

CUF president.

The conflict occurs in the context of a movement in which at least six unions are

competing for worker membership.

Complicating matters further is the Cambodian Labor Union Federation, the successor

to Cambodian-American entrepreneur Ted Ngoy's Free Unions Federation of which the

US Embassy's Aug 2000 Labor Trends Report stated there was "...little evidence

that the union existed anywhere other than on paper".

Jason Judd, Country Representative of the new American Center for International Labor

Solidarity, is optimistic that Cambodian workers can rise above the bickering and

in-fighting of the organizations seeking to represent them.

"They're pretty gutsy," he said of the Kingdom's workers. "Pretty

gutsy and pretty angry."

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