Short-sightedness, weak adherence to the law and poor working conditions in Cambodia’s garment sector are creating a fertile field for strikes to prevail over negotiations, a recent study released by the Arbitration Council Foundation, an independent labour mediator, has found.
According to the study, incidents of striking have considerably increased in the disputes the council mediated, going from 17 in 2012 to 94 in 2014. While compensation issues were by far the most common demands in strike cases the council oversaw – making up 37 per cent of all cases during a one-year period from April 2014 to 2015 – it was far from the only factor enabling the proliferation of strike action.
Because many employers offer only the most minimal protections required by the law, strikes are not used as a last resort but as a negotiation tactic, the study says, beginning on an “ad hoc basis rather than as part of a campaign to achieve broad based CBAs [collective bargaining agreements]”.
CBAs, or governing contracts drawn up between unions and employers, are seen as smoothing industrial relations by avoiding the use of strikes while setting up clear standards for workers.
But a range of issues hamper the effective implementation of CBAs in Cambodia, according to the report, such as the lack of a separate labour court to handle cases involving a wide number of demands.
“An inability to promulgate various claims at one time and achieve a longstanding resolution in the form of a CBA provides many more ad hoc opportunities for strikes to occur,” the report reads.
Employers’ tendency to reimburse striking workers’ salaries has also led to a system in which strike pay is used as a consolation prize, often awarded in lieu of strikers’ more “substantive demands”, the report says.
Meanwhile, the industry’s attempt to co-opt the labour movement through the use of pro-employer, or “yellow”, unions has had the side effect of proliferating minority unions as workers become frustrated and disenchanted with yellow representation.
William Conklin, country director of the US-based Solidarity Center, said that Cambodian workers’ overreliance on strikes exists largely because other measures lead nowhere.
“The avenues are very limited for unions,” he said. “Ideally, strikes wouldn’t be used, but you also want to get towards employers [providing] a decent working situation.”
Conklin added that effective CBAs were largely absent due to the little respect employers paid to minimum labour standards, leading to confrontation rather than negotiation as the chief conduit of action.
“You can’t have dialogue when [only] union members are being terminated,” he said.
However, Ken Loo, secretary general for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that establishing CBAs was difficult due to minority unions disrupting the CBA process merely to “get benefits out of the situation”.
Loo added that unions themselves did not respect the Labour Law when they went on strike, ignoring rules such as providing prior notice.
“All their strikes are illegal, they don’t comply with procedures,” he said.