After the management of an embattled garment factory this week refused to follow a government order to reinstate 19 dismissed union leaders and activists, unionists and observers are at a divergence of opinion over how the state should respond.
“It’s fairly unprecedented,” Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center, said. “The government has sort of gone out on a limb.”
Three days after a deadly November 12 garment worker riot in the capital, during which a bystander was killed by a police bullet, the Ministry of Labour sent an order to SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd dictating that it rehire the workers within 15 days.
Acquiescence could have ended a more than three-month strike.
Joseph Kee Leung Lee, director of SL International Holdings, declined to comment over the phone yesterday.
The case will now move to court, Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Labour Ministry, said.
“It is [SL’s] right if they want the court to solve the case,” Sakmoth said of SL. “They accused us of putting pressure on employers and investors, so let them work with the court.”
But in labour disputes, court proceedings have often proved a futile effort for unions, as judges disproportionately favour management, Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said.
If the Labour Ministry is serious about ending the strike, Tola said, it should suspend SL’s exporting licence, a move that would cripple the company – which supplies to Sweden-based H&M and US-based Gap Inc – possibly forcing it to submit to the ministry’s order.
“I think the time is now, because it has already taken so long for the SL strike to be resolved,” Tola said.
While the Labour Ministry could take this course, Sakmoth said, ministry officials believe it would cause greater harm than good.
Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), which represents a large majority of SL employees – including the 19 in question – agrees that suspending SL’s exporting licence would prove counterproductive. But in his experience, Cambodian courts are ill-equipped in handling labour disputes.
In previous labour cases, courts have taken years to come to a decision, and even when it ruled in the union’s favour, did not enforce the verdict, Athit said.
“I think if they bring it to court it will be a big disaster; this case is very complicated, and the court in Cambodia is not specialised in labour.”
The only viable solution Athit sees is continued negotiation and calling for international buyers to apply pressure to the factory. But considering how these tactics have worked so far, even this strategy is questionable.
“I’m optimistic, but not very optimistic,” Athit said.