Eighty-three Cambodian workers have been fired from their jobs at a Thai-owned plastics
manufacturing factory in Phnom Penh because of their efforts to unionize, they say.
Ouk Bun Neath, 30, a mechanic and President of the Workers Union of Modern Plastic
Packaging Company Limited (MPP), said the union was formed on November 27, 2000 with
official recognition by Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) Minister Ith Sam Heng.
Bun Neath said the union was created to boost workers' bargaining power with the
factory's management to increase salaries from $38 to $45 per month, and to stop
what workers believe are the company's unfair dismissal practices.
Two days after the union's formation, MPP management fired the 10 workers who made
up its core on the pretext that the company was experiencing economic difficulties.
"I asked the managers why they fired us just after the union was formed. We
don't know if the company really has an economic crisis. We are just production workers."
"[MoSA] officials approved the establishment of the union, but so far they have
done nothing to help us. It seems to me that the ministry does not care," said
After the 10 unionizers were sacked, some 150 MPP workers went on strike between
November 29 and December 5 to demand the company re-hire them.
The strike action failed and 73 of the picketers were subsequently fired.
Chea Sopheap, 25, one of the sacked workers, said so far mediation by MoSA has proved
"Khieu Savuth [a MoSA legal official] told me that he could not force the company
to hire us back. I told him that if the company has sacked us, then we want compensation.
Savuth said 'If you have a problem, then file a complaint with the court,'"
Hak Chamroeun, another fired worker, said: "After the strike we returned to
work but we were not allowed to enter the factory." She said one of MPP's management
staff, Chum Chan Bopha, told her the workers were sacked for striking in support
of the union.
In Khemara, Deputy Director of MoSA's Labor Inspection Department told the Post that
MPP did not actually fire the striking workers. "They chose not to come to work,"
However Lean Chinda, a lawyer with Legal Aid Cambodia representing the workers, said
they were indeed fired for supporting the union.
Though MPP management refused requests by the Post for an interview, they provided
a December 15 company report about the firings.
The report states that on November 29 MPP fired the 10 union activists because they
were "bad workers" and the company is facing economic difficulties.
According to the report the company received a letter from MoSA ordering the company
to recognize the Workers Union of MPP later on the same day of the dismissals..
But Union President Bun Neath said on November 28 he personally informed MPP management
official Chan Bopha about the unions creation. That same day he pasted copies of
the ministry's approval letter on factory walls to let workers know the union existed.
"But [Sanoh Prajonghit, the factory manager's assistant] covered them with paper
so workers could not read [them]. So I tore the papers off. On [November 29] he fired
me and the other union representatives."
According to the MPP report, the company held a December 1 meeting with MoSA's Labor
Inspector In Khemara. He reportedly asked the company to re-hire the 10 union activists,
but MPP management refused. Khemara decided that seven of the unionists should file
suit against the company, and the other three, including Bun Neath, could negotiate
for their jobs.
Negotiations on December 6 and 14 between MPP management and the three unionists
failed to reach a resolution.
Khemara said MoSA is prepared to intervene only on behalf of those three, threatening
to fine and sue MPP if they are not re-hired. The remaining 80 sacked workers must
fend for themselves.
"The company cannot stop these three from working without an approval letter
from the ministry. As for the [other seven], if they refuse to accept the factory's
compensation offer, then they can sue."
Khemara said Cambodian workers have the right to strike only if they follow official
Workers must first negotiate with their employers before striking. If those negotiations
fail, then the workers should come to MoSA for assistance, he said.
If MoSA cannot resolve the dispute then its officials must report to the minister.
And workers should give notice to both MoSA and their employer informing them that
they will strike within seven days.
"I already reported to Minister Ith Sam Heng about these workers," said
Khemara, "he will negotiate with the company."
But Khemara's claim to have informed the Minister is a lie, said Bun Neath. When
Bun Neath asked the Minister's advisor on January 4 if there was any news on their
case, Bun Neath was told that Ith Sam Heng had no knowledge of the matter.
Bun Neath has all but lost faith in the willingness of MoSA officials to fight for
the legal rights of Cambodian workers.
"I would like to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to help us get our jobs back because
we are all his children. We depend on him," said Bun Neath.