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Garment workers fill balconies and Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh during a strike calling for an increase to their minimum wage earlier this month
Garment workers fill balconies and Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh during a strike calling for an increase to their minimum wage earlier this month. Pha Lina

Union reps fired after strike

Despite Cambodia’s labour law forbidding employers from taking action against workers for engaging in union activity, more than 100 labour union representatives have been fired from at least 12 factories this month for encouraging workers to strike for a $160 monthly minimum wage.

The firings came shortly after the mass strike over wages waned in the wake of authorities shooting dead at least four people on January 3 and a subsequent government ban on public demonstrations.

“I can’t see why any of these terminations would be legal,” said Joel Preston, a consultant for the Community Legal Education Center.

Factories that fired employees supply to brands including Adidas, Calvin Klein, Armani, among others, he said.

Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions (CATU) president Yang Sophorn yesterday said 50 CATU union representatives have been fired from the Manhattan Textile and Garment factory in Kampong Cham since early January.

“The reason that factories fired them was because they joined in the strike, but some factories claimed their contracts were finished, even though they were not,” Sophorn said yesterday.

Officials at Manhattan could not be reached for comment.

The majority of union leaders fired in the wake of the large-scale strike are members of CATU and the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said Moeun Tola, head of CLEC’s labour program. Reasons for firing them were largely for encouraging workers to participate in the strike, an action protected under Cambodia’s labour law, he added.

“That’s completely against the law, the way that they fired the workers,” Tola said. “The three key fundamental rights [for unions are] the right to organise, the right to collectively bargain and the right to strike.”

Sophorn and Pav Sina, CUMW’s president, both filed complaints with the Ministry of Labour over the firings, they said yesterday. Neither has heard back from the ministry.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour and undersecretary of state Sat Samoth could not be reached for comment yesterday. The firings follow a larger trend of aggression and against labour unions in Cambodia, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

“I think that they’re willing to [fire workers] under these circumstances just demonstrates the intensity of the anti-union feel,” Welsh said. “There’s . . . a pretty clear process in place to fire someone especially when they’re a union official.”

Although discrimination against union activity carries with it hefty penalties – including possible imprisonment – most union officials distrust Cambodia’s court system, and refuse to press charges in court, Tola said. However, he added, CLEC is working with international labour rights groups and seeking the assistance of international brands that buy from Cambodian factories.

“[These factories] are not only violating the Cambodian labour law, but they are also violating international law,” Tola said.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, could not be reached.

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