The government has dropped controversial criminal penalties targeting unionists in its latest draft of the union law, Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said yesterday.
Addressing a meeting of representatives of international apparel brands, including Nike, Adidas and PUMA, unions, government officials and the International Labour Organisation, Cham Prasidh said the government had heeded criticisms of the law.
“Regarding concerns by relevant parties about penalty chapters in the draft, the government decided to remove the criminal provisions and lessen the financial penalties as well,” he said.
The previous draft was heavily criticised by unions and civil society groups for allowing union representatives to be sent to prison for up to three months and fined up to 10 million riel if they are found to have forced workers to join unions.
Cham Prasidh said the latest draft, the fourth, served the interests of all parties and did not privilege any individual or group. It would be submitted to the government by the end of the year, he said.
The minister praised the Cambodian garment sector’s resilience, noting that it had grown by 25 percent since the global economic crisis while successfully protecting the rights of workers. However, he also urged investors to keep in mind that Cambodia was a relatively young democracy with unique values.
“In the US you can ridicule your president. You can have a cartoon depicting president Bush in a temple or whatever, even as a gay or hippie. In Cambodia, if you do [that to] Prime Minister Hun Sen you are going to be in jail,” he said.
Sat Sakmoth, under secretariat of state at the labour ministry confirmed that the draft law had been sent to the Council of Ministers.
“Many articles were dropped, which included articles related to criminal sanctions,” he said.
Dave Welsh, country director for the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, described the criminal penalties in the previous draft union law as “outrageous”.
“Trade union laws promote free collective bargaining and independent trade unionism. So far that has not been the case here, but the government’s been responsive to changes, so let’s wait and see,” he said.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodia Confederation of Unions, said the amendments made to the draft law did not sufficiently alleviate restrictions on unions. “What the Ministry of Labour did is still unacceptable to unions,” he said.
Welsh said that appeals Cham Prasidh had made to the US government to drop tariffs on Cambodian garments as they had done to 95 percent of tariff lines in Africa were predicated on Cambodia adopting a proper trade union law.
“Well the quid pro quo for that is for free trade access. There’s a labour provision for that. You have to promote proper free collective bargaining.”
The US has pledged to drop the tariffs but has thus far not scrapped them, costing the Cambodian garment industry some $US400 million per year, Cham Prasidh said.
Charmaine Nuguid-Anden, a representative of PUMA, said concerns about practices in the production of garments in developing countries were not limited to laws and minimum wage. “The labour issue is technically only one component, the price of labour input into a garment or a shoe for that matter is very small ... there are a lot of other issues here when it comes to investing here, there’s a lot more investment that needs to come in, material, education etc.,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA