THOUSANDS of garment workers are to return to work after a coordinated strike to protest the industry’s newly established minimum wage was called off in its fourth day last week.
Investors are breathing easier with the work stoppage at an end, but tension in the industry remains. On Saturday, unionists said police in Phnom Penh and Kandal province broke up demonstrations against the suspension of two dozen union members, injuring 12; the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, meanwhile, says it is pursuing lawsuits against union leaders in relation to the strike.
Organisers said that the work stoppage encompassed more than 200,000 of the sector’s 345,000 workers, though observers said the actual figure was likely closer to GMAC’s estimate of 30,000. In any case, as the sector moves on from the conflict, industry analysts say improvements in Cambodia’s labour-relations framework are needed to minimise disruptions on a similar scale in the future.
“The problem with Cambodia is, it’s great to see the activism and dynamism that occurred this week, but it’s in far too many cases the only action at people’s disposal,” said
David Welsh, country director for the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity.
With 237 unions operating last year in the garment sector alone, collective bargaining is a major challenge. Among the perhaps 340 factories in the garment and footwear industry, only “around 10” comprehensive collective bargaining agreements are in place, according to John Ritchotte, a labour-administration specialist at the International Labour Organisation.
Ritchotte said in an email that Cambodia was “unique” regionally in “allowing unions a relatively high degree of freedom to organise in the garment sector”. Though the presence of unions is not necessarily linked to the frequency of strikes, Ritchotte said, the fractured nature of the Cambodian labour movement presents challenges in negotiations.
An April study by the ILO found that roughly 42 percent of garment workers belonged to unions, with in some cases as many as seven unions operating in the same factory. Managers reported difficulty in accommodating the differing demands of competing unions, and said that they would often “reject all union demands, in order to be viewed as treating unions equally”.
Last week’s strike was organised primarily by the Cambodian Labour Confederation and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia; other prominent labour groups, however, such as the Free Trade Union and the Cambodian Union Federation, opposed the work stoppage.
“GMAC is always happy and willing to negotiate with the unions representing the workers, but we need to know who to negotiate with,” GMAC secretary general Ken Loo said.
Many labour leaders have shown little confidence in such negotiations, instead reflexively relying on strikes in the event of a dispute.
The Kingdom’s 1997 Labour Law requires that strikes be declared seven working days in advance, and that parties to the dispute submit to mediation offered in the interim by the Ministry of Labour or the Arbitration Council. According to the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, however, all 163 of the strikes recorded in the garment industry in 2008 and 2009 flouted this legislation.
Last week’s strike was announced just three working days in advance, the CLC said.
Employers bear a share of the blame for industrial unrest as well, as they have “tended not to respect” decisions from the Arbitration Council, said Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical adviser for the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia programme. Parties that come before the council have the option of choosing non-binding arbitration, which they had done in 90 percent of cases as of last year, according to the World Bank.
One means of addressing these issues may come with the impending passage of the Trade Union Law, which represents a significant expansion of the legal framework surrounding the labour movement. The draft Trade Union Law provides for the designation of a “most representative” union or coalition of unions in a given factory or enterprise with the exclusive right to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.
Regulations for unions with Most Representative Status were first spelled out in a 2001 prakas and updated in 2008; the expanded procedures for MRS certification and collective bargaining included in the draft law are intended to boost the use of these practices. The law also proposes the transfer of labour-related cases to a Labour Court that has yet to be established.
Ritchotte said there was a “general consensus” among government officials, employers and unions on the efficacy of MRS unions – specifically, unions that can claim 51 percent of workers in a given establishment as members.
“If the MRS union and the employer reach an agreement that includes a ‘no strike’ clause for the duration of the contract, in exchange for binding arbitration at the Arbitration Council, this can make a major contribution to building a culture of good industrial relations in Cambodia,” Ritchotte said.
Welsh noted the “risk” that independent unions could be muscled out of MRS status by those with more powerful backing, but said that as long as the collective bargaining process is monitored and transparent, its prospects are good in the Cambodian garment industry.
“There’s real hope for a win-win situation in the sense that you’re dealing with 400 factories in a relatively homogenous industry,” Welsh said. “It’s really realistic in ways that in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, it’s much more arduous and much tougher to obtain.”