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Report decries lack of union representatives

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Workers stitch clothes at a garment factory in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone. Sahiba Chawdhary

Report decries lack of union representatives

A report by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) said there are no independent union representatives present at the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) to protect the rights and conditions of workers.

A Ministry of Labour official called the findings on union representation a “small negative point”, while a union group coordinator said the zone “should be special for all”.

The SSEZ was established in 2008 as a joint venture between Chinese and Cambodian enterprises. The project is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” for Cambodia.

The SEZ is built on an 11.13sq km site and employs around 20,000 workers. More than 90 companies are in operation in the zone, with around 20 at the start of operations, while 10 had ceased activity, the CCIM report said.

The SSEZ website says that in its second phase, it is aiming for some 300 enterprises employing between 80,000 to 100,000 workers.

The CCIM’s 14-page report released on Tuesday used interviews with more than 20 people from 10 factories in the SSEZ. Some workers interviewed said their salary was deducted by between $20 and $30 if they were absent from work without permission or a doctor’s certificate.

Some claimed they were made to work overtime involuntarily or not in their stated role. They also said they were employed on short-term contracts which offered them weak job protection. The report also claimed there were no independent union representatives present in the SSEZ.

An Rama, a coordinator for the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) for Preah Sihanouk province, said the report had found important problems that needed to be addressed.

“I think the problems found in the report are big and important. I think the special economic zone should be special for all. We have seen it is special for investors, but we see it is not special for the workers there,” he said.

But Pol Chan Dara, an official at the Labour Department, said what was reported were “small negative points”.

Praising the government’s efforts in improving working conditions and benefits, Chan Dara said the environment for workers had been improved and poverty reduced.

“My house is there. If there is any problem, we will solve it immediately. There is no special economic zone that violates human rights. I guarantee that there are no violations at all. But for the small things raised, we cannot deny it happens,” he said at the event launching the report.

‘Who is independent?’

Chan Dara said workers’ unions were freely allowed to be formed under the law, but he criticised the report when defining “independent unions”.

“I don’t know who is independent. Independence is not when you hit out and go against the government. This does not mean you are independent. Independence is not when you take foreign money for your role. Independence is from your heart and serving your profession,” he said.

Chan Dara said that a company within the SSEZ was fined last year, and in 2018 three companies were fined for breaking laws related to working conditions and regulations. He said there were no disputes with workers this year and that no union leaders had been fired.

He denied workers’ salaries were deducted by $20 to $30 for absence. He said the deduction was $6:50 for each day off work.

Chan Dara said if workers had any problems, they should approach the government committee established at the SSEZ.

“At the SSEZ, we have a committee with representatives from the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Commerce, CamControl, customs and local authorities. All complaints can be put in a mailbox,” he said.

The CCU’s Rama requested that the government should allow representatives from workers’ unions to be a part of the SSEZ’s committee.

“We request to allow union representatives in that special economic zone. That would be good. As raised in this report, workers’ rights are protected by law, but the implementation is not widely practised because workers are afraid,” he said.

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