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Strikes down, but advocates, officials differ on significance

Officials attend a conference to review the Ministry of Labour’s annual report on Monday.
Officials attend a conference to review the Ministry of Labour’s annual report on Monday.

Strikes down, but advocates, officials differ on significance

Strikes in Cambodia plummeted by more than half last year, according to the Ministry of Labour’s annual report – a statistic lauded by the government as evidence that worker conditions had improved but rejected by labour advocates as a sign that dissent was being suppressed.

At the opening ceremony of a two-day meeting to discuss the report on Monday, Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng said the ministry “fully respected” the rights of unions.

“The collaboration between worker unions and employers improved a lot,” Sam Heng said. “That reduced labour disputes, and there were fewer protests, strikes and illegal demonstrations.”

However, labour rights advocates expressed scepticism about the ministry’s interpretation of the data.

Monina Wong, the Asia-Pacific officer for the International Trade Union Confederation, pointed to the effects of the much-criticised Trade Union Law, passed in 2016.

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“A lot of the unions are very cautious now,” Wong said. “That means the number of strikes organised by unions, I would expect, went down a lot. That does not necessarily mean disputes were less or disputes were more efficiently resolved.”

The number of collective complaints lodged at the ministry also fell by two-thirds last year, while the number of individual disputes more than doubled, a figure that Wong said lent more credibility to the theory that unions were being suppressed by the new law.

Rights groups have accused the law of being a thinly veiled attempt to shackle union leaders with tedious new rules, such as requiring unions to register at least 50 percent of the workers on the floor or requiring three original copies of meeting attendance sheets to register a new union.

In December, several union leaders told The Post that they felt afraid to intervene or assist workers in factory disputes due to the law.

Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Khun Tharo cited both the Trade Union Law and the tense political climate ahead of the July national elections as reasons why strikes might be decreasing. “

Workers and trade union leaders really do not have a space to exercise their rights,” Tharo said. “They are scared or fearful of being accused of incitement. There are fears that trade union leaders, or even workers, are not secure [in leading strikes].”

In addition to strikes, the ministry reported another 89 demonstrations or protests last year – less than half the number of demonstrations in 2016.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday.

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