Twenty disabled workers, all women, travelled to Phnom Penh yesterday from Kampong Speu province to make a plea for the government to investigate what they see as discrimination by Shimano (Cambodia) Co Ltd. They accuse the garment factory of abruptly firing them without cause last month.
The women, 14 of whom use wheelchairs, held a press conference at the offices of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, where some broke down in tears.
Seng Bopha, 29, said they were among nearly 90 disabled workers at the factory until she and the 19 others were dismissed on February 23 without cause.
“We need our jobs,” she said. “We were forced by the company to thumbprint our severance pay.”
Chhoun Chanveasna, 32, had worked at the factory for a decade, and received $2,730 in involuntary severance pay.
“We were forced out of the job immediately,” she said. “They did not inform us before.”
Reoun Srey Mom, 34, said she was also forced to receive $1,278 in severance for her four years of work. Srey said the company had claimed after workers complained that the firings were due to financial problems, but she questioned the real motive.
“Why did they fire the disabled workers first?” she asked.
Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, said his NGO will send a letter to the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Women Affairs in the hope that an inter-ministerial committee will be created to look into the case.
“It’s unfair,” he said. “It shows discrimination [toward] disabled people.”
Sa Voeun, a representative for Shimano, denied that the dismissals were discriminatory but declined to comment on the reasons, saying the issue was a confidential internal matter and maintaining all workers had been paid.
Velibor Popovic, a governance specialist at UNDP, said the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by the Cambodian government in 2012, “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability with regards to all matters concerning all forms of employment”.
The right to work for people with disabilities is further protected by Article 33 of the Cambodian Law on Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of People with Disabilities, Popovic added.
Moeun Tola, head of labour rights group Central, said officials need to examine whether workers were terminated based on their disability or performance. If it was based on performance, a review into whether the employer made adjustments to assist the disabled workers would also be needed, maintaining that if it had failed to do so, the workers wouldn’t be at fault.
“We need to have a serious investigation to find the reason behind those people being terminated,” he said.
Aside from looking into whether discrimination was linked to the dismissal, officials should also investigate whether the employer followed legal labour requirements, such as giving proper notice of termination, Tola added. Under the Labour Law, workers need to be given prior notice ranging from one week to three months, depending on the length of employment.
“You cannot just force people to sign severance packages without following the legal procedures,” he said.
Tola said the practice of employing disabled people in this industry is still “not quite common”, despite a loosely enforced government mandate that disabled people make up at least 1 percent of a private employer’s workforce.
However, Mey Samith, executive director of the Phnom Penh Center for Independent Living, said the practice was gaining momentum, and that some employers were willing to make necessary adjustments.
“People with disabilities have the abilities to work in different ways,” he said.