T HE Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor has come under attack from unionists and
labor analysts for obstructing the legal recognition of several unions, while promoting
CPP-aligned unions, in an effort to gain control over Cambodia's fast-growing industrial
The allegations emerged following the June 8 departure of labor officials, accompanied
by at least one hand-picked union delegate, to an annual International Labor Organization
(ILO) meeting in Geneva.
Of nine unions so far recognized by the Ministry of Labor, seven are members of
the Cambodia Union Federation (CUF). According to CUF president Chuon Mom Thol five
more unions are due to be registered by the ministry and taken into the federation.
The federation has been accused of being CPP-backed by other unions and by independent
labor observers, an allegation it has denied.
Ministry of Labor officials were allegedly instrumental in setting up the remaining
two unions which the ministry has recognized.
Meanwhile, three unions - the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia
(FTUWKC), the Free Independent Democratic Union of Gold Kamvimex Workers, and the
Free Independent Democratic Union of Sam Han Workers - complain that ministry officials
are hindering their registeration attempts.
Analysts say the situation represents a worrying pattern of ministerial interference
in the country's fledgling labor movement, though acknowledging that labor official's
activities have remained within the letter of the law.
"They are interpreting the law in a way which best serves their own interests
and it is in their interests to recognize unions which are under their control,"
said one analyst.
FTUWKC representatives claim that two unions - which both bear the name Independent
Union of Cambodia Workers (IUCW), and were the first unions officially recognized
by the ministry - were established at the Cambodia Garment and Gennon factories under
the supervision of ministry officials and factory bosses.
IUCW (Gennon) union leader Chreung David, currently in Geneva with Labor Ministry
State Secretary Suy Sem (CPP) and other government officials, was regularly seen
by Gennon workers being escorted in a ministerial car, according to FTUWKC officials.
"[The IUCW] is not independent because the government has tried to help them
without any support from the workers." said FTUKCW's Gennon representative,
Nhiew Dina. Gifts, including radios and sarongs, were given to IUCW members, according
to Dina, although she was unable to confirm the source of them.
"We think the ministry does not recognize us [FTUWKC] because the ministry
is a afraid that... the union will stir up the atmosphere in the factories,"
Free Independent Democratic Union (Gold Kamvimex) president, Sek Channoun, says
that her union has run into difficulties with the Labor Ministry over the election
of shop stewards, with ministry officials demanding that the union accept management-appointed
"We disagree with this because it is not a democratic process," said
Channoun, whose union represents two-thirds of Gold Kamvimex's 740-strong labor force.
According to Channoun, the union has been told by ministry officials it cannot
elect its own shop stewards because the union is yet to be officially recognized.
Until then, the union members do not have the right to engage in collective bargaining.
"There is no 'perhaps'. The ministry is really helping the owner more than
us," said Channoun.
Unionists at the Sam Han factory paint an even grimmer picture of factory management
interference in their attempt to set up a union.
Union president, Chhim Sokhandara, recounts a story of continuing threats and
harassment by factory owner, J W Lee, including one incident where the owner led
four armed police into the workers' dormitory.
The police roamed the dormitory, pointing their rifles at workers heads, and beating
one employee severely in the May 24 incident, according to the union president.
According to Sokhandara, ministry officials had visited the factory but had met
only with management. After the ministry official's visit, harassment of the unionists
had increased, said the unionist.
"One official from the ministry came to the factory to meet and solve the
problem. He talked with the boss but didn't call both parties to the meeting, so
no one knows what the solution was," said Sokhandara .
"The owner tried to block our way [to establish the union], but when we complained
to the ministry, they tried to block our way too," said the union official,
adding that he "[has] doubts about the agreement" between the Labor Ministry
officials and the factory owner.
Labor Ministry officials hotly denied charges that they have been discriminatory
in their recognition of unions, saying that the major obstacle has been incomplete
applications by the workers.
In particular, an Apr 4 ministerial declaration, issued shortly after the 1997
Labor Law came into effect, requires union leaders to produce certificates from the
Ministry of Justice showing that they have never been punished under the penal code
and has proven a stumbling block for aspiring unions.
"If they have all the required documents, I have no reason to reject them,"
said Deputy Director of the Labor Inspection Department, En Khemara.
Khemara rejected suggestions that union affiliations to political parties, or
the lack of them, might stand in the way of their official recognition and vehemently
denied that the ministry had ever "interfered" in the selection of union
or worker representatives.
Director of the Labor Inspection Department, Haing Sitha, reiterated the denial,
in response to specific allegations that the ministry had assisted in the establishment
of the two IUCW unions.
"I just know that any union which comes to apply, I explain what forms to
fill in. The ministry has never put in its hand to steer any union," said Sitha.
Nevertheless both labor analysts and international union representatives - who
had gathered in Phnom Penh for a June 5 Roundtable on Trade Unions in Southeast Asia
- remained skeptical about the ministry's management of the registration process.
"Registration should mean what it says and say what it means, That should
be it. The ministry should not be creating additional requirements," said one
analyst, referring to the ministerial declaration which was released after the Labor
Law had been promulgated.
While the FTUWKC, the Gold Kamvimex union and the Sam Han union have complained
of long delays and difficulties in meeting application requirements, the two IUCW
applications were lodged and registered at the ministry within five days of the April
4 declaration, according to Labor Inspection department records.
International delegates to the June 5 Roundtable said they had been "disturbed"
by reports that "some unions which have applied for registration have met bureaucratic
The regional trade union representatives also expressed concerns that Cambodian
union delegates chosen to go to the Geneva ILO conference "may not represent
the actual workers' interests".
"We heard they [ministry officials] were in a hurry to set up unions to bring
a delegate to Geneva. We don't want fake delegates in Geneva," said Basil de
Silva, Asian and Pacific Representative of Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International.