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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Looking to South Africa

Looking to South Africa

CAMFEBA is urging the government to draft a law to govern labour unions drawing inspiration from legislation introduced in Africa’s biggest economy

CAMFEBA organised a workshop to discuss a proposed new labour union law this week. It followed a May Day demonstration last Friday in which more than 1,000 Cambodian workers descended on parliament to demand the establishment of a labour court, a monthly $120 minimum wage, fair treatment and a reduction in working hours from 48 hours to 44 hours per week. AFP

CAMBODIA's major employers association is urging the government to look towards South Africa as it considers a measure to buttress labour laws employers say are insufficient to control disruptive unions.

Cambodian Federation of Employers and Manufacturers Associations (CAMFEBA) President Van Sou Ieng told a workshop on the proposed new law this week that post-apartheid South Africa had successfully used legislation to consolidate its unions and streamline industrial negotiations.

Under Cambodian law, just three people are required to form a union, he told attendees at the workshop, meaning some factories had 13 or 14 unions.

"It's very difficult to run an enterprise with such a number of unions," said the employers' representative, who is also president of the Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia (GMAC).

"Many people abuse the law to form a trade union, not for the protection of workers but to protect their own bad behaviour."

According to GMAC figures, 1,569 unions operate in a little over 300 factories in Cambodia.

Guest speaker Victor van Vuuren, chief operations office of Business Unity South Africa, which represents 80 percent of employers in the country, explained how the proliferation of trade unions had crippled industrial relations in post-apartheid South Africa.

Employers, unions and government formed a tripartite body and developed a labour union law that reduced strikes while improving industrial relations, economic growth and conditions for workers.

But union officials in Cambodia said a labour union law was unnecessary as their activities were already governed under the 1997 Labour Law.

"I would like GMAC to work with unions under constitutional law to clarify what is allowed to be carried out," Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Cambodia, Cambodia's largest union, told the Post this week.

"We welcome any action against illegal strikes and demonstrations held by any unions."

Overnight, trade unions started disappearing and others merged to form solid trade unions.

While unions are concerned about anything that could diminish their bargaining power, Dragan Radic, a senior specialist in employer activities at the International Labour Organisation, said the need for a law to govern labour unions was not a matter of freedom of association but of a functioning industrial relations environment.
"We are quite excited about [this new trade union law] because we hope it will give us better and more meaningful industrial relations so that we can focus on our core mission, which is making money," he said.

"And I can tell you that unions will be quite excited as well because what they will be looking at in this trade union law is how to [protect against] anti-union discrimination."

No losers

Any law needed to balance the interests of workers and employers, but  a framework for improving industrial relations was imperative, he said.

"The government is, of course, interested in improving industrial relations in this country because it is not good for the future of the country [to have continued labour disputes] - it is in a competitive global market and it is very important that business can flourish in this country."

According to van Vuuren, the take-home message from South Africa was that legislation could benefit both workers and employers. There, trade union laws guaranteed freedom of association, but a registration and recognition process meant they had to be truly representative of workers' interests to get a seat at the bargaining table.

"If one workplace had 10 unions, the government would not recognise them all and would ask for consolidation," he said. "Overnight, trade unions started disappearing and others merged to form solid trade unions."

Recognition depended on set criteria, and could not be arbitrarily denied by employers. Any dispute would be heard by an arbitration body, but  it made decisions with a mandate to prevent trade union proliferation, van Vuuren said.

Cambodia's labour law also contains provisions against union proliferation, but this is seldom enforced.

Unions must be registered with the Ministry of Labour, and Article 277 states that where there is more than one union in a workplace, then the one with the most members, at least 33 percent of whom pay dues, was considered to represent the workers.

CAMFEBA Executive Manager Som Chamnan said one of the key issues facing employers was not the law itself but enforcement of the law. Even if unions acted illegally, it was very difficult for employers to take action against them, he said.

The Arbitration Council could interpret whether activities were illegal, but was powerless to make rulings, while a Labour Court called for in legislation had not yet been created, he said. The general courts currently had jurisdiction, but they were generally regarded as inefficient, hence compliance with the law was low.

Van Vuuren said the key to the success of union law in South Africa were the institutions created to enforce it. "If you write a law for unions, if you don't have the regulations and the institutions to back it up,x you are wasting your time," he said. 

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