Union leaders gathered in the capital yesterday to discuss strategies to curb the garment industry’s widespread use of temporary contracts for hiring workers, saying employers were using them to discourage unions and ensure their workforce remained docile and easy to exploit.
They also accused employers of flouting the Labour Law by keeping staff on fixed contracts for longer than two years, and said that officials at the labour ministry were tolerating this despite a July, 2003 ruling by the Arbitration Council saying it was illegal.
Short-term contracts were also being used to weed out pregnant workers to avoid paying maternity leave, and coerce staff to work overtime, said Bent Gehrt, the Southeast Asia field director of the Worker Rights Consortium.
“Even if they are tired and exhausted, most workers on [fixed duration contracts] felt they could not say ‘no’ if they were asked to work overtime.
“There is no limit to how low you can go with FDCs and how low employers are willing to go with them,” he said, citing a case in which he alleged an employer set contracts at 25 days to avoid paying attendance bonus attained by 26 days of work.
Ken Loo, Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general, however, said the Arbitration Council’s ruling had no legal bearing because GMAC had objected to it formally. He also said the labour ministry had sent GMAC two letters in which it clarified that its interpretation of the Labour Law meant that fixed-duration contracts could be renewed after the two-year period.
“The apparel industry is becoming more uncertain” with “consumer demand become increasing difficult to forecast”, he said, explaining that these were key reasons industry “stakeholders” were not objecting to the prevalence of short-term contracts in Cambodia.
Noun Chantha, president of the Cambodian Asian Confederation, called on the Kingdom’s fragmented union movement to unite for a concerted effort to put some limits on the use of the contracts. “There is no need for more workshops. How many workshops have we had in the last four or five years, and how many benefits have been lost during this time?” he said.
“We are unionists, and we are asking other people to speak on our behalf. Should we bring our children to workshops so they can tell us what to do?” he said.
Referring to the Labour Law, he said: “It is not written in Pali or Sanskrit, it is straightforward Khmer. There is no need for interpretation.”
Tep Kimvannary, president of Cambodia Federation Independent Trade Union, agreed that fixed-duration contracts were a disincentive to workers’ rights. “Workers feared their contracts of three or six months would not be renewed if they joined a union,” she said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the workshop, continuing today, was to find ways to “take action to urge employers to reduce the use of fixed duration contracts”.
GMAC’s Loo said their use was the perogative of management, and warned that foreign investers would think twice before investing in Cambodia if the government took the option away.