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Union out of loop in MoU negotiations

Ath Thorn, head of the CLC, speaks to workers
Ath Thorn, head of the CLC, speaks to workers from SL Garment Processing’s factories during a protest in Phnom Penh last month. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

The garment industry could be close to renewing an industrial relations memorandum of understanding, but an independent union believes it is being edged out of negotiations because it opposes the use of short-term and fixed-duration contracts.

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said yesterday the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia was trying to exclude one of his unions, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), from discussions.

“Recently, when we suggested signing a new MoU, employers suggested [articles] that talk about ‘short-term contracts’,” he said. “Because C.CAWDU has expressed it is against these contracts, GMAC is upset with us.”

The MoU, which GMAC and unions groups including the CLC signed in September 2010, included agreements that parties would support collective bargaining and examine the use of short-term and fixed-term contracts, which Ath claims are being used by “70 to 80 per cent of employers” and lead to workers losing benefits.

It also outlined conditions that must be followed before a strike could be called.

The MoU has been up for termination or re-negotiation since October, but neither has happened and it is essentially inactive.

GMAC and C.CAWDU have been in dispute in recent months over strikes at factories such as the capital’s SL Garment Processing, which supplies Levi’s and Gap.

“Whatever GMAC or employers think about C.CAWDU, we still want to sign an MoU and implement it together, because we are partners,” Ath Thorn said.

“If C.CAWDU is not in the MoU, many international union confederations will not recognise [the MoU].”

Moeun Tola, head of Community Legal Education Center’s labour project, said C.CAWDU’s exclusion would result in an MoU that does not represent workers.

“It will only stand for the employers’ side. It will be a serious intimidation of freedom of association [and] a symbol to the other unions telling them not to be active,” he said.

“The problem is GMAC wants to include a new clause . . . about fixed-duration short-term contracts,” he said.

Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said negotiations to renew the MoU now look possible for July.

“Everyone including C.CAWDU wants to be part of it,” he said. “The ILO [International Labour Organisation] is interested in getting it back on track.”

The MoU had provided more structure to the industry, including through use of the Arbitration Council and more scope to bargain, he added.

GMAC, however, was refusing to include C.CAWDU in MoU negotiations, Welsh said.

“GMAC is intimating it wants to sign an industry-wide agreement … with government-aligned unions.”

According to a 2011 report on trade unions by Melisa R Serrano, Edlira Xhafa and Veasna Nuon, a lack of independent bargaining remains an issue.

“Using their connection with the aligned unions (those supporting the dominant political party), the government does not have to commit to real bargaining, as it uses these unions to neutralise the position of independent unions,” the report states.

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo said he was less interested in unions’ political alignments than whether they followed the law.

“We don’t care if you’re with the ruling party, as long as you’re still doing your job as a trade union,” he said, adding C.CAWDU had deceived its members in recent strikes at SL.

Loo said GMAC would sue C.CAWDU for accusing it of being behind violence at SL.

C.CAWDU, however, could still be involved in MoU discussions – but only if GMAC’s union group of choice, the newly formed Cambodian Council of National Unions, invited it to, Loo said.

“We meet with CCNU very soon. As early as next week,” he said. “[It] has 62 unions and confederations, the most representative union [group] for the industry. It easily accounts for three quarters of the industry.”

Loo denied GMAC was pushing for increased use of temporary contracts, but said it was only trying to get a “final, definitive interpretation” of the law because the Arbitration Council and the Ministry of Labour had different interpretations.

Kim Chansamnang, deputy secretary-general of CCNU, said his organisation was independent.

“We work with relevant institutions for the interest of the workers.”

He did not say whether C.CAWDU would be invited to join discussions.

The ILO did not respond to the Post’s request for comment.

To contact the reporters on this story: Shane Worrell at
Chhay Channyda at



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