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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Union riot a tragedy for labor rights

Union riot a tragedy for labor rights

Last week's riot, in which two people died and dozens were injured, was a tragedy for the people of Cambodia and the labor movement itself. The union involved, NIFTUC, has strong links to senior figures in the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), in particular Chea Soeurn, a factory manager and an advisor to Senate President Chea Sim.

NIFTUC has escaped blame for its role in the riot, while the government is now using the violence as a pretext to crack down on the country's largest and sole independent labor union, the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC).

The problem of independent unions being harassed by government unions has grown significantly over the past few years. Government unions have increased in number and influence, and now pose a serious threat to independent unions and workers' rights.

These unions exist to serve the interests of the government and the industry, and we believe enrich their leaders with bribes. There are different factions of government unions, some under the direction of a government minister, or in NIFTUC's case, with a powerful business and government contact.

But the basic aim of all these unions is the same-to do the bidding of the industry and their government masters while creating the false impression of legitimacy as trade unions.

The recent Terratex strike by NIFTUC was carried out in an effort to replace the FTUWKC union in the factory. With militant rhetoric, its leader, Morn Nhim, effectively fooled workers into believing she was defending their interests.

Once unions like NIFTUC gain their needed majority in a factory though, they start serving the interests of management. The strikes cease, working conditions deteriorate, and the manager receives the 'stability' he needs. The exercise usually costs managers a fee-in Nhim's case, the US State Department reported she had received a car from the Tack Fat factory, which is managed by Chea Soeurn. We believe that it was in exchange for providing a disciplined workforce.

While Nhim has used deception to gain control over factories, other government unions use violence and intimidation. The Cambodian Union Federation (CUF) for example, which has strong links to a government minister, routinely harasses our members.

Most recently, in March 2003, the CUF beat FTUWKC demonstrators outside the Trinunngal Komara factory, where a union election was bring rigged in the CUF's favor. The incident was witnessed and photographed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and proved an embarrassment for the government. It also led to an ILO review of the CUF's representative status.

The June 13 strike went horribly wrong for NIFTUC, but this was not the first instance this union has threatened violence against a factory. In March 2002, Nhim was videotaped at a strike outside the Luen Thai Garment Factory threatening to burn down the building with petrol bombs if management did not meet her demands. She later tried to coerce the factory to pay $7,000 in exchange for ending the strike, which its management refused to do.

Nhim's comments caused disaster at the June 13 riot. It undoubtedly shocked both NIFTUC and the government, but thanks to Nhim's close ties with the CPP, she cut a deal to escape prosecution. Nhim delivered a false statement on the pro-CPP Bayon Television saying that the FTUWKC had incited the riot. This gave the authorities a pretext to summon our president, Chea Vichea, for police questioning where he was threatened with prosecution.

What is clear is that Chea Vichea was in Takeo province during the incident, but our union now faces the possibility of legal charges. In our past experience, the pro-CPP Pagoda Boys turn out with violence and impunity to break up the gatherings. Interestingly, they were never summoned to this strike.

With the election nearing, independent unions face their greatest challenge yet from government unions and its 'Brown Shirts' such as the Pagoda Boys. These pro-CPP organizations will play a key role in preventing the FTUWKC from raising worker issues during the election campaign. In the interest of protecting workers' rights and the independent union movement, it is essential that the international community hold the government directly responsible for the actions of its client unions.

ï George McLeod is the international liaison officer to the FTUWKC.

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