Female union leaders in the garment industry – where women constitute 90 per cent of the work force – are effective at bargaining for better working conditions, but their voices aren’t being heard in a union landscape dominated by men, a labour expert said yesterday.
Veasna Nuon, co-author of Building Unions in Cambodia: History, Challenges, Strategies, said even in factories where women are elected as union leaders, they are often unable to effect much change because bargaining usually takes place further up the union chain, where men hold most positions of power.
“In terms of union representation, there are more women at a lower level,” he said.
“But the number of women elected at federation level is less than 10 per cent,” he said. “They have . . . almost nothing when it comes to national representation . . . men are making decisions for women.”
Cambodia’s garment industry has an estimated 400,000 employees working in hundreds of factories.
But while the vast majority of these workers are women, little more than half of elected union representatives at the factory level are female, Veasna Nuon said.
One of these union leaders is Ti Sokhun, a 36-year-old garment worker who works at a factory in Phnom Penh.
After seven years of frustration at issues her co-workers faced, Ti Sokhun decided last year it was time for change.
“I couldn’t stand to see female workers constantly threatened and looked down upon by factory officials,” she said. “I asked my fellow workers if they would support me to be their leader in the factory, even though I didn’t particularly want to do it.”
Ti Sokhun stormed to victory in an internal Cambodian Federation for Workers’ Rights leadership vote in October to become her factory’s first female union representative.
It was only then she began to notice things change for women – and even men – in her factory.
“The difference between before I was union leader and after was enormous,” she said.
“The factory officials, who had not paid attention to our demands before, began to listen. They stopped threatening workers, so more joined the union – now we have more freedom, attendance bonuses and other things.”
Achieving major changes that would affect the whole industry are much more difficult to achieve, Veasna Nuon said.
“At a factory level, it is more democratic than at a national level,” he said. “[At a national level], there are so many issues that are not met,” he said. “It’s very broad.”
Perpetuating the problem were barriers preventing women from climbing the union ladder.
“The union job is not an easy job. People have competing interests, it’s long hours, voluntary, and [many women] have family commitments and often no support from their families to become a union leader at this level,” he said.
Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said the industry faces a huge challenge in getting women more involved in the labour movement at all levels.
“There needs to be more gender diversity,” he said.
“Just from a morale point of view, if you’re looking across the trade union movement and thinking: ‘We’re all women. Why aren’t any of us in leadership positions?’ then it’s an issue.
“There are certain issues that require gender sensitivity – there are certain issues embedded in the labour law that require gender sensitivity.”
Under Cambodia’s Labour Law, factories must allow women to breast feed, they must provide them Western toilets and they cannot order them to lift heavy boxes if they have recently given birth or miscarried.
Protection from sexual harassment is also clearly spelled out.
In his book with Melisa Serrano published in 2010, Veasna Nuon wrote that Cambodia’s labour movement was “essentially a women’s movement under male leadership”.
“It would augur well for unions to adopt policies and strategies that would enhance women’s participation of women in union activities.”
“I don’t think anything has changed since then,” he said yesterday.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he encouraged such participation within his confederation.
“We need to have more women union leaders, because more than 90 per cent of garment workers are women. If their leaders are women, they can easily understand women’s issues,” he said.
Women are often lacking inside knowledge of how unions work and are therefore not confident when it comes to being involved, he said.
“We need to [nurture] their leadership and [encourage participation],” he said.
Ti Sokhun will be one person relieved when more of her co-workers become involved in the union movement.
“Sometimes I feel tired and I want to abandon this work, but I think there will be no one else to help the workers,” she said.