The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has often trumpeted the improvements it has achieved over the past five years with resolving individual and collective labour disputes in factories which it claims has resulted in strikes being eliminated almost entirely.

However, union leaders working in the garment sector see the reduction in strikes as the result of the promulgation of restrictive laws on trade unions and workers’ rights over that period.

At an October 12 press conference on the ministry’s achievements over the past five years, ministry secretary of state Heng Sour stated that the number of inspections has decreased on the back of markedly more effective reforms to capacity building among inspectors as well as the examination process.

“Through the inspection system reform, which is based on inter-agency and institutional integration, it is easier for us to be able to find a factory’s shortcomings. This leaves factories with fewer problems that require reporting [by employees] and increases obedience to the law while reducing disputes with workers,” he said.

At the same time, he also said that the number of individual dispute cases resolved at the ministry level has been increasing, with 27 cases in 2018, 30 in 2019, 41 in 2020, 60 in 2021 and 62 cases so far this year.

The resolution of collective labour disputes at the factories has improved at the ministry level with 60 per cent solved along with over 30 per cent resolved at the Arbitration Council level.

“We are proud to see that the tendency for the eruption of collective labour disputes that lead to strike has been steadily declining, not because of restrictions but because of factors involving both employers and workers who understand the law, its conditions and the art of negotiation,” he said.

He added that although they have still seen some strikes, but the achievement was the tendency for a decrease in strikes and increase in reconciliation between workers and employers.

“We all see that the number of strikes has decreased significantly compared to the previous mandate, which is the pride of the labour ministry in contributing to ensure the harmonisation of industrial relations,” he said.

He emphasised that it was because the strike resolution mechanism was strengthened causing the strike rate to gradually decrease to below one per cent this year through timely intervention, claiming that the government’s strike resolution was almost 100 per cent effective.

The ministry’s report showed a strike rate of 4.0, 5.0, 4.0, 6.0 and 4.0 per cent in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively. The rate of resolving strikes this year was 96 per cent so far compared to 2021’s 94 per cent.

He said that in addition to ensuring working conditions and the health and safety of workers, the ministry has continued to strengthen and expand the development of additional regulations to ensure better mechanisms for resolving individual labour disputes and collective labour disputes without prolonged disputes.

Sour also said that through economic growth, the employment rate in Cambodia is up to “99.3 per cent” of the workforce of more than 12 million people, with 1.3 million of that number working abroad and transferring remittances to their families totalling $2.7 billion this year.

Sour added that in the past five years, the ministry had also guaranteed the freedoms of trade unions by continuing to register unions and employers’ associations and now there were up to 5,591 unions in the factories and other companies.

“In total, at least 100 unions are formed each year, in addition to an increase of 263 unions and 40 federations. Thus, we see that freedom of association in Cambodia is guaranteed and there is no reduction,” he said.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), noted that the decrease in strikes was due to the new law on trade unions, which was the factor that prevented them because it restricted the freedoms of workers and unions.

He said that with both individual and collective disputes, the union parties now try to resolve them at the grassroots level while also discussing them with external partners to prevent disputes from spreading.

“So we see that the strikes have decreased, but there are still a lot of disputes going on,” he said. “For example, if there is a strike, the union cannot participate in mediation. The union could face accusations of the crime of incitement which could lead to being warned, sued or its leaders prosecuted. So, it makes the union reluctant to participate due to the restrictions in the law.”

He said that while it is true that the forming of unions has increased they are not unions that stand on the principle of independence or protect workers’ interests, rather they are unions that are subservient to employer or government interests.