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Letter reveals ILO's cautious criticisms of draft union law

Union leaders gather outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh late last year to deliver a petition against aspects of the draft trade union law.
Union leaders gather outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh late last year to deliver a petition against aspects of the draft trade union law. Pha Lina

Letter reveals ILO's cautious criticisms of draft union law

As the debate surrounding the contentious draft trade union law winds down, with an all but assured passage through the National Assembly on Monday, the International Labour Organization has maintained a stoic silence publicly over its position on the draft law.

However, in a letter leaked to the Post on Friday, dated March 10 and signed by Maurizio Bussi, director of the ILO’s decent work and technical support team for East and South East Asia and the Pacific, the UN’s labour body has put forth its observations to the government, albeit cautiously, on the legislation. The ILO suggests that certain articles in the document need to be re-worked, clarified or were contrary to the provisions of ILO conventions and local labour laws.

While labour groups and the opposition have been publicly outspoken in their criticism of the law, they say that the ILO letter demonstrates that efforts by the UN’s labour organization to lobby the government have fallen well short.

The carefully worded letter, addressed to Labour Minister Ith Samheng, says that article 3, which makes the law applicable only to those under the current labour law, would exclude informal workers and public servants, including teachers. It suggests that these groups of workers will “need to be addressed through separate legislation.”

Additionally, it states that age, residency and literacy requirements for prospective union leaders “could be reconsidered.” It goes on to say that the combined requirements that an absolute majority of members is needed at union meetings to determine whether to strike, and that a majority of those participants must vote in favor to do so could make “strike action difficult, if not impossible, for the larger trade unions.”

The letter states that the ILO Committee of Experts expressed hope that the draft law would be adopted "in the very near future and will be in full conformity with the provisions of Convention 87."

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour acknowledged that the letter was presented at a consultative workshop on March 9, but blew off the ILO suggestions.

“Our law is better than the ILO conventions and better than other countries in the region,” he said.

On the flurry of letters being sent by international trade unions and workers rights groups, Sour said that these groups should “read their own laws and they might be stricter and not following the ILO’s conventions.”

The law was now at the National Assembly to consider, Sour said.

William Conklin, Cambodia country director at worker advocacy NGO Solidarity Center, said that while the letter picked out the articles that needed a relook, it would have been preferable if the ILO’s comments were made public and were “stronger, or more direct.”

“In contrast, the analysis released by [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Thursday] was much more in depth and also much more direct with the changes that are needed,” he added, referring to a analysis released this week by the UN body, which determined many of the clauses to be in violation of human rights norms.

Employers groups have been lobbying to get a threshold for union formation set at a minimum of 20 per cent of the workers on the factory floor. The ILO’s letter states that the current requirement of 10 people “seems reasonable.”

“Of course that is what they want,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia. “That is what they have been pushing for in the law.”

Speaking to the Post this week, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said that when he was handed the ILO’s position on the draft law, he found it to be “very disappointing” and they had not done enough to contribute to the law’s debate.

“Knowing the ILO’s position could help us a lot to talk to the government over whether to pass the law or not,” Chhay said.

Contacted yesterday, Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, expressed a similar view, that the ILO had been publicly absent when there was opportunity to address key issues with the law.

"The ILO should push the government to amend the union law, by only just sending the letter, it does nothing to help us,” she said. “They should make their critical input [given to the government] public in order to push government to take action."

Neither the ILO’s Maurizio Bussi nor the Cambodian office could be reached for comment on Friday.

Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng

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