The National Assembly yesterday passed a contentious trade union law, just hours after a group of pro-union demonstrators and Daun Penh district security guards clashed violently outside.
The vote, which came at the end of a nearly six-hour debate, saw 67 Cambodia People’s Party lawmakers vote in the affirmative – Prime Minister Hun Sen was absent from the vote – with the law remaining unchanged from the draft that was presented to the National Assembly.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said his party, which did not vote for the law, attempted to seek clarification and changes to multiple controversial clauses but failed to get responses from the government.
“They did not explain clearly what their intentions [were to retain articles in the law],” he said. “They said that is how the government thinks the law should be.”
He said articles relating to the exclusion of informal workers from the law, registration requirements for union formation, union leader criteria and burdensome financial reporting – articles which have also been flagged as problematic by the International Labour Organization (ILO) – continue to remain in violation of local laws and ILO conventions on workers’ rights.
However, Suos Yara, spokesman for the CPP, said the opposition’s claim that the government did not respond to the CNRP’s concerns was a one-sided viewpoint, adding it was a “good result” and that both sides got to raise questions like “a real democracy”.
“They had their reasons and the minister who defended the law had his own reasons,” he said. “So they cannot just say it’s one-sided.”
Expressing “regret” at the passage of the law, Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the law would mean workers will lose their rights to association.
“I think the National Assembly seems to not play a role in representing citizens because this law does not respect the rights and freedom of workers, and will become the standard” going forward, Sina added.
Following the passage of the law, the ILO released a statement saying that it had drawn the government’s attention during the initial phases of drafting to concerns surrounding insufficient protection of workers’ rights in the draft law, adding that it offered to familiarise lawmakers with the country’s ILO commitments last month.
“It is now vital for the government, together with unions and employers, to turn its attention to implementing in a fair and impartial manner the new law – the first such legislation since the adoption of the Labour Law in 1997,” the statement read.
Moeun Tola, executive director at labour rights group Central, said he was speechless at the passage of the law, which he classified as “definitely unconstitutional”.
Apart from local union pressure, Tola said that in the future international buyers and brands needed to convey to the Cambodian government that the law could jeopardise their reputation with consumers, who were increasingly aware of these issues, leading to a possible scaling down of orders from the country.
“If the brands make a clear statement, the Cambodian government would reconsider it because Cambodia depends a lot on the garment sector,” he said.
Earlier in the day, close to 100 protesters who opposed the law were dispersed by the notoriously violent Daun Penh security guards, with the latter shoving and pushing demonstrators who were sloganeering near the National Assembly, leading to prominent union leader Yang Sophorn being thrown to the ground and another unionist hit across the head.
“This violence happened because the protesters did not ask for permission,” said City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche. “When we tried to prevent their protesting, they used the women to push the security guards and hit them first.”
While Sophorn said she hadn’t considered filing a complaint, Sina said they were discussing the matter with their lawyers and would lodge a complaint soon.