UNION leaders have moved to defend the legality of the large-scale strikes that swept the nation last week, condemning factory owners and the courts for the suspension and firings of more than 300 union leaders and activists.
The Cambodian Labour Confederation and the Cambodian National Confederation released a joint statement Wednesday evening in which they “reject the argument that loss of income is a legitimate reason for punishing workers and union leaders who are pursuing their legitimate
“The purpose of a strike is to withhold labour from the employer in order to achieve union demands,” the statement read.
“This inevitably leads to a loss of income by both the employer, who loses production, and the workers, who lose wages. Therefore, to punish workers for the loss of production is to undermine the basis of the right to strike.” The statement also said that courts ordered the suspension of 159 union leaders and activists from 17 factories “for practicing their right to strike”, and that employers had fired a further 151 people for “leading strikes”.
These suspensions and firings violate Article 333 of Cambodia’s Labour Code, which says employers are “prohibited from imposing any sanction on a worker because of his participation in a strike”, it argued.
The statement came as a second round of strikes continued in Kandal province, and an industry representative warned that factories have had to begin reducing worker numbers as a result of a downturn in business caused by the strikes.
Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said Wednesday that it is a “fact of life” that factories have to reduce the number of employees when business slows.
“We know that one or two factories have had to seek suspension of workers due to the fact that buyers have cancelled orders,” he said. “This is what we said would happen.”
He declined to give further details about which factories had suspended workers or how much business had been lost, though GMAC previously estimated that the garment industry lost more than US$15 million as a result of the strike.
Industry representatives have also justified the court-ordered suspensions, saying the strikes had been deemed illegal.
In their statement, however, the unions argue that the strikes were legal and claim that they have “no confidence in the independence of the courts in Cambodia”.
Loo said yesterday that this argument was irrelevant. “It is not for GMAC, nor the factories, nor the NGOs, nor the unions to decide whether the strikes were legal or otherwise,” he said. “We all must defer to the courts on this matter.”
Last week’s strike, which began on Monday and was scheduled to last for five days, was largely spurred by a July decision that set the minimum wage for garment workers at $61 per month, far below the $93 that some union leaders had campaigned for.
Labour leaders called off the strike on Thursday after the Ministry of Social Affairs called for a meeting to discuss potential “benefits” for workers earning the minimum wage.
But fresh strikes began at some factories on Friday afternoon following reports that more than 200 union representatives accused of inciting the original strike had been suspended.
Workers from three factories in Kandal province have continued to strike throughout the week, agitating for their representatives to be reinstated.
Loo said yesterday that about 7,000 workers remained absent from work in three factories in Kandal province, around 1,500 of whom were striking outside the factories.
The meeting at the Ministry of Social Affairs is scheduled to begin on Monday.