In his latest barrage of populist rhetoric aimed at winning over the coveted garment worker vote, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday took aim at the controversial but commonplace use of short-term contracts, which dominate a sector riddled with job insecurity and exploitation.
Hun Sen, who has held the same job as Prime Minister for 31 years and plans to keep it for a decade more, said he had only recently been notified about problematic three-month contracts offered to garment workers.
“After the three months’ probation, their contract must provide for longer [employment] – it’s not right that after probation they still have the same period on their contract,” he said to some 10,000 garment workers at a factory in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district.
He said while factories needed to assess their labour needs, short-term contracts were “a problem for which we need to find a proper solution”.
“The three-month contract creates a lot of concern and stress to workers, as they’re not sure if they can continue to work or not, so I please call on employers, GMAC [the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia] and the Ministry of Labour to work on this and ensure job security for our workers,” he said.
Khann Ath, 27, a garment worker at Tien Sung factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, said working on a three-month contract meant she couldn’t say no to overtime, join a union or object to unreasonable production quotas.
“Although the work is high-pressure, I need to accept it if I want to get my contract renewed,” she said.
Cambodian Labour Confederation President Ath Thorn said the contracts also disadvantaged pregnant workers, whose contracts were often not renewed to avoid maternity leave payments.
Roughly 80 percent of Cambodia’s garment labour force is estimated to be on contracts of two, three or six months.
GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said there was no legal definition of “short-term contracts” – only fixed-term and unlimited duration contracts – and that both had their “pros and cons”.
“The workers are fully aware of the type of contracts that are being offered to them by the employer; they are under no obligation to sign on the dotted line . . . There’s no forced labour in Cambodia,” Loo said.
He said the type of contracts used depended on the needs of the factory, and said while these needs did not eclipse worker’s rights, “the needs of the workers do not trump the needs of the factory” either.
In the past two months the premier has also promised workers free health care, two years of free access to public buses and a $100 baby bonus to new mothers.
Moeun Tola, head of labour rights group Central, welcomed Hun Sen’s comments, saying although they were motivated by politics, they could yield tangible results for garment workers.
“Everyone understands it is because we are coming close to the election – that always happens from all political parties,” he said.
“I just hope that the comments from the Prime Minister may reactivate the law enforcement,” he said, arguing that if the Labour Law were applied correctly, short-term contracts would automatically be converted to unlimited duration contracts after two years.