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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Unions cry foul on registration

Unions cry foul on registration

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,"

she said.

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

shop stewards.

"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.



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