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Critics question ministry’s claim of resolving most labour disputes

A union leader shouts slogans during a garment factory protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal court late last year.
A union leader shouts slogans during a garment factory protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal court late last year. Heng Chivoan

Critics question ministry’s claim of resolving most labour disputes

The Ministry of Labour yesterday announced a nearly 40 per cent drop in the number of Cambodians who went on strike last year before then taking credit for successfully resolving the vast majority of those work stoppages, a claim met with widespread scepticism from unions.

According to its annual report, unveiled by Labour Minister Ith Samheng in Phnom Penh, there were 336 cases of strikes in 2015, a dip of just 2 per cent from the year before. The number of workers taking part in those strikes, however, dropped 40 per cent from 2014’s total to 82,000 workers.

But while the number of those taking part in strikes dropped, those who chose to walk off the job did so more vocally, with nearly 20,000 choosing to demonstrate, a whopping 77 per cent increase from 2014.

Of the 582 cases of strikes and demonstrations in 2015, the report stated that the ministry had “found successful resolutions” to all but 17.

When questioned by reporters about the seemingly low number of unresolved cases, Samheng defended the ministry’s track record in resolving disputes.

“When protests happen, it’s not just related to the Ministry of Labour; there is the Ministry of Interior, the NGOs, authorities, employers and unions who join together to find a solution. Don’t only blame the Ministry of Labour,” he said. “The Ministry of Labour always takes care [to resolve protests.] If we cannot do it, we send the cases to the Arbitration Council or to court. But the side that loses always blames the Ministry of Labour.”

Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina talks to the media yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied
Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina talks to the media yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

The report’s claims of successful mediation stood in sharp contrast to the scene unfolding directly outside the ministry yesterday, where Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, held a protest over the ongoing Agile Sweater garment factory dispute in Kampong Speu province, which saw the arrest and release on bail of five CUMW unionists last month.

Sina accused the ministry and employers of colluding to crack down on union activity in a move he said would affect the ruling party’s popularity if left unchecked.

“We need the ministry to find a solution to Agile Sweater, which abuses workers who have protested for more than two months without resolution,” he said.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), also slammed the Labour Ministry’s claims over the phone yesterday, describing the ministry as chronically understaffed and often biased in favour of employers.

“Just C.CAWDU itself had more than 10 unsolved protest cases last year, so how about the whole country?” he asked rhetorically.

Thorn said that the actual number of strikers may have reduced in 2015, but said the reduction did not represent a significant improvement because early 2014 saw massive bouts of unrest due to minimum wage protests and the previous election.

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday.

Yesterday’s report launch came hard on the heels of the International Labour Organization singling out Cambodia and a handful of other countries for not providing enough union feedback about whether ILO conventions were being properly enforced.

In its annual report on the application of international labour standards, released on February 5, the ILO also said it had noted reports of the routine arrest and detention of workers and various impediments to registering independent unions.

“The [ILO] committee observes that the [Cambodian] government objects to most of the allegations and issues raised,” the report reads.

Additional reporting by Charles Rollet

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