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Workers waiting for a bargain

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Angkor Beer promoters strike last year in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

Informal workers, a class that includes beer promoters, tuk tuk drivers and farmers, are among those who stand to benefit most from the upcoming trade-union law, observers say – and workers say it can’t come soon enough.

Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said the law’s latest draft allowed the associations many of these informal workers are already in to be pushed to their “full logical conclusion”: a working union.

This would enable workers to collectively bargain with their employers or the equivalent parties, which could include the government or local authorities, Welsh said.

“Whoever was deemed to be the employer would be under a legal obligation to sit down and bargain with them on issues they want to,” he said.

The latest draft – the fifth since the government announced plans to introduce the law more than a year ago – was sent to the Council of Ministers last November for approval, but not even the government seems to know when it will be enacted.

Instances of informal workers organising themselves to protect their rights are increasing.

Examples in the past year have included tuk tuk drivers protesting against rising fuel prices and a strike by Angkor Beer promoters last year that won them overtime pay from Cambrew.

The ability to form unions would ensure any international company with owner-ship stakes in Cambodia would be held accountable, turning what was a “PR issue” for companies like Carlsberg, which owns half of Cambrew, into a “legal issue”, Welsh said.

Cambodian Food and Serivce Workers' Federation president Sar Mora, whose association represented the striking Angkor Beer promoters, said the law would be a welcome step in formalising the rights of workers in the food and beverage industry.

Often, there was a “lack of implementation” of decisions handed down by the Arbitration Council, Sar Mora said, alleging that Cambrew continued to discriminate against the former strikers by assigning them to unpopular restaurants where they would earn less commission.

“[Food and beverages] is a very new sector in Cambodia, and many workers are not aware of their rights,” he said. This had led to poor working conditions, low salaries, long hours and no days off.

The ability to unionise would empower poor workers who felt they had “no money, no power” and feared confronting their employers, Sar Mora said.

“[Rights] will be based on negotiations, with both parties honest with each other.”

Hong Sann, a tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh and a member of the Independent Democracy of Economic Association, said drivers were often unaware of their rights and, as a result, were vulnerable to the police’s fining practices.

“The traffic police and local authorities always fine us when we stop on the riverside road near the Royal Palace,” he said, adding that the fines ranged from US$5 to US$10.

The police also extorted bribes of US$2 to allow tuk tuks to carry advertisements, Hong Sann said. Advertisers paid drivers US$5 a month.

Not everyone, however, is convinced the law in its latest form is adequate.

IDEA president Von Pao raised concern that the law would let employers and government officials interfere with workers’ organisations.

If the government did not comply with national and international labour laws, itwas unlikely it would listen to workers even with the trade-union law, Von Pao said.

“For example, we demanded the government reduce the price of petrol to equal that of neighbouring countries like Thailand and Vietnam, but until now we have not gotten a resolution,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Cassandra Yeap at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com
Khouth Sophak Chakrya at sophakchakrya.khouth@phnompenhpost.com

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