A newly-formed union is distancing itself from the Free Trade Union of the Workers
of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) and its backer Sam Rainsy, raising the debate
of the politicization of organized labor. At the same time, there are claims that
factory owners are setting up 'puppet' unions to quell potential labor unrest.
Ming Cheong Garment factory workers are reluctant to join ranks with the FTUWKC,
saying that they want to remain independent.
About a third of Ming Cheong's 752 employees formed a union Jan 19 after allegedly
being ordered to increase productivity without a raise in their $1-a-day salaries.
Union president Sek Channoeun claims that the union did not feel compelled to join
with FTUWKC because it did not want to be involved in any political struggles - citing
the relationship between FTUWKC and Sam Rainsy, head of the Khmer National Party
"[FTUWKC] was formed by strikes led by Sam Rainsy. Our union has been founded
by ourselves without any strikes," Channoeun said.
FTUWKC advisor Sok Van Khema takes strong objection to assertions that the union
is a political tool of Rainsy's KNP.
"All of our members of the union are not members of the KNP. Sam Rainsy never
encourages the workers to be members of the party. Every intellectual should have
the right to promote human rights in Cambodia," he said.
Sok Van Khema said that FTUWKC had moved out of the KNP's headquarters and established
their own office, although they are still sending press releases through the KNP's
The FTUWKC boasts that it has recruited over 1,500 members and 10,000 "unofficial
supporters" in garment, battery and rubber factories. The union's organizing
campaign targets expanded recruiting beyond Phnom Penh and aggressive leadership
and fundraising drives.
FTUWKC has also been offered support by international labor groups, including: the
International Conference of Free Trade Unions, the International Textile, Garment
and Leather Workers' Union, the World Confederation of Labor, and the International
"We want to join together with other unions. . .we feel we [can be] more powerful
when unions join together," explained FTUWKC president Ou Mary.
Union rights contained in Cambodia's new labor law - passed by the National
Assembly but yet to take effect - have raised the debate over the independence of
budding labor organizations.
The issue was raised at a Cambodian Labor Organization (CLO) conference held Feb
19-21 in Phnom Penh.
"We're trying to emphasize to workers the rights they have under the labor law
and in the Constitution. . .while explaining to them the advantages of joining independent
versus political unions," said CLO executive director Seng Phally.
The CLO, an NGO funded with $20,000 from the United Nations Development Program,
is conducting labor research, workers' education and legal assistance to workers
The most significant pressure on labor organizing may come from the new labor law
itself. The law will allow factories to have more than one union - a factor that
could exacerbate inter-union tensions if several unions attempt to organize the same
workplace, observers say.
Critics charge that it would be impossible for multiple unions to harmoniously advocate
workers' concerns to management in a collective voice. This raises the concern of
FTUWKC's Khema who recognizes the potential problems of fac-tionalized union power:
"The real problem is if other unions serve the interests of the workers or not."
The new labor law will require the few unions already formed to apply for legalized
status, according to Kann Man, chairman of the National Assembly's commission on
He said the law states that all unions must hold new elections observed by factory
managers, MPs, and the press. They must also submit the names of members, the union's
statutes, and an application for legal recognition to the Ministry of Labor.
Man claimed that these provisions will simultaneously allow greater freedoms and
frustrations in organizing drives. For example, he explained that factory owners
often "elected" worker representatives from their employees who were not
participating in union activities.
He disclosed that the Ministry of Industry produced a letter Jan 30 sanctioning the
procedure while recognizing these workers as the legitimate representatives instead
of the union leaders belonging to the same factory.
Man charged that the situation would "confuse" workers and muddle the unionization
process. Thus, the provision that has been considered the saving grace of the labor
law - the right to organize - is even considered to be faulty by Man and likely to
pose problems for workers in the future.
While concerned about possible difficulties that these procedures could cause for
current "unrecognized" unions, Khema submits that the galvanizing effects
of workers' activism has already set a precedent that cannot be reversed. "What
we have done has been an empowering thing for workers. If we have to re-do elections
we are not worried," he declared.
But critics charge that even after workers clear all of the hurdles in achieving
legal status and overcoming inter-union strife, there are still great obstacles that
lie ahead. For instance, union and non-union workers will still have to contend with
a potentially problematic labor department which is inadequately funded and therefore
susceptible to poor enforcement of laws and corruption.