Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bickering over the politics of unions

Bickering over the politics of unions

Bickering over the politics of unions

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

(KNP).

"[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

fax machine.

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

Labor Organization.

"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

and unions.

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

labor.

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.

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