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Workers left in limbo on union law

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Women on a production line at a clothing factory in the Vattanac Industrial Park complex in Phnom Penh last year. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post

Almost six months after the latest draft of the proposed trade-union law was sent to the Council of Ministers for approval, employers, unions and workers’ rights groups are left asking the same question: What’s happened to it?

Confusion over the status of the landmark law, which includes provisions for informal workers such as tuk-tuk drivers to unionise and collectively bargain, is such that government secretary-general Nady Tann yesterday could not say where the draft law was.

“As far as I know . . . it was sent back to the Ministry of Labour, but I am not so clear where it is now,” he said. “I only see it when it is to be finished.”

Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, however, was adamant the draft law was still with the Council of Ministers.

Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said the trade-union law, which will affect workers across the country, was designed in part to show the US trade representative and the US market what Cambodia was doing to improve conditions for workers.

After initial “draconian” drafts that were “insanely suicidal” to efforts to expand market access, most of the major points union groups opposed, including criminal sanctions, had been removed, Welsh said.

“That was in November,” he said. “We assumed this would be completed by December or January. “The word from the Minister of Social Affairs now is that the government will hold off until after [commune] elections to release it.”

Included in November’s amendments was the right for informal sectors to collectively bargain.

“That totally solidifies the rights of construction sector workers, regardless of the seasonal nature of the work, tuk-tuk drivers and domestic servants,” Welsh said, adding that severe restrictions on joining unions and striking had been removed.

“It’s a very progressive step.”

Welsh said there was no reason for the government to delay the law – unless it was having second thoughts.

“Our concern is that the reason it has taken [this long] is because they want to completely revise what was in it, which would be a mistake, because we would be back to square-one. And the international trade community would be all over it. But it’s been in front of the Council of Ministers since November. It doesn’t send a great message.”

On the other side of the labour equation, Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers in Cambodia, was also confused about when the law would be approved.

“From the last round of consultation, we haven’t seen any movement; it’s a little disappointing,” he said.

As to what would be in the final version – and whether GMAC would be happy with it – Loo could not definitively say.

“Nobody has the latest version. The government has taken submissions from both sides. No law is going to satisfy everyone; however, the major concerns of workers and employers have been incorporated.”

Cambodian Center for Human Rights
president Ou Virak said he did not expect the law to be introduced before next year.

“The new law could potentially add more criticism to the treatment of workers,” he said.

Therefore, he expected the government to avoid drawing attention to the industry – especially after the shooting of three women during a protest at the Kaoway Sports factory in Bavet town in February that made international headlines.

“The government is listening to buyers more than they admit to.”

Ou Virak said he also had not seen the latest draft, but said unions had been concerned factories would manipulate the law’s fine-print to favour their own unions, so it was better for the government to take the time to get it right.

“It’s a not a matter of when, it’s a matter of what they introduce,” he said.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, agreed.

“We have to make sure those fundamental rights – to organise, collectively bargain and strike – are protected,” he said, adding that this could take time.

“Some people have told us they have sent it back to the eight working groups under the direction of the prime minister for more discussions.”

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he had heard nothing since unions asked the Ministry of Labour on December 21 to make some further amendments.

“But unions made only small requests,” he said.

The labour and socials affairs ministers could not be reached yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com

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