As first moves go, Rong Chhun's was downright bold. In his opening salvo as president
of the newly formed Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), Rong Chhun has demanded
that the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) honor its pledge to
negotiate pay rises for the more than 70,000 unionized garment workers.
If not, he says he will call for a mass work stoppage in schools and garment factories
as was threatened last month. He has reiterated the call for a monthly salary of
$80 for garment workers and $100 for teachers.
"I have sent a letter to the president of GMAC to remind of him of his promise
to the FTU (Free Trade Union) that they will meet us for minimum wage negotiations
early this month," Chhun told the Post on January 10. "But I have received
no letter or call from them yet, and I know that they have already come back to Cambodia."
The general strike, scheduled for July 3, and spearheaded by Chea Mony of the FTU
and Chhun's Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association (CITA), was postponed after
a last-minute meeting between top labor leaders and GMAC officials. The GMAC team
said they needed to travel to trade discussions in Geneva and Washington, but that
wage talks would resume this month.
The unions' tough stance was heralded as a victory by labor analysts, and yielded
a letter from GMAC that conceded "We agree in principal on the need of changing
the minimum wage."
Rong Chhun is the new face of the trade union labor movement in Cambodia - and a
range of international labor officials are hoping he can turn recent momentum into
a bona fide workers' movement aimed at social change.
"The ILO [International Labor Organization] is very encouraged by these recent
agreements between garment manufacturers and the trade unions to negotiate a deal,"
said John Richotte, chief technical adviser of the ILO's Labor Dispute Resolution
"Everything looks quite encouraging for democratic trade unionism in Cambodia."
One encouraging sign, experts say, is the merging of like-minded union federations
into more powerful confederations. On August 6, the FTU joined with the CITA to form
the CCU. FTU leader Chea Mony, brother of assassinated union leader Chea Vichea,
did not stand for the presidency becaue health problems and because of Chhun's experience.
"In the past few months there have been a number of confederations formed,"
said Alonzo Suson, country program director for the American Center for International
Labor Solidarity. "There are now five confederations. So that pretty much puts
most of the unions in one confederation or another. In terms of getting international
support and ties, it makes it much easier for them if they are part of a confederation.
At this point the highest level of organization is the confederation."
The labor union movement in Cambodia was launched in 1996 with the founding of the
FTU by Vichea, Ou Mary and Sam Rainsy, now head of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party
"It was the early stage of industrialization; the first factories were being
opened at that time," Rainsy said. "There were no more than 50,000 factory
workers; now there are more than 300,000. The situation was much different than it
is today. Nobody paid attention to the working conditions of the factory workers.
There were appalling abuses. Workers were locked in factories day and night. They
were beaten and it was true slavery.
"When I look back on that period I see what a long way we have come."
But the labor movement, born with the emergence of an urban working class in the
mid-1990s, still has maturation ahead, Suson said.
"All the union leaders in general got involved about the same time, so they're
all maturing at the same pace," Susan said. "If you consider the labor
union movement in Cambodia, they're still like teenagers - both the unions and the
leaders - in terms of experience.
"If you compare it with unions in other countries where you have three or four
generations already, then you can see this is Cambodia's first generation. They're
going to make a lot of mistakes and there will be growing pains. They need some time
to prove themselves."
On May 1, thousands of garment workers marched into Phnom Penh to be met by police
with electric batons and fire hoses. Three FTU members were arrested and many more
physically intimidated by authorities, Mony told the Post at the time.
Restrictions on the right to demonstrate, physical force, corruption and political
manipulation are all well-documented setbacks for the free trade unions.
"Unions in one way or another get involved in politics," Suson said.
"In Cambodia, aside from the government or the Buddhist religion, unions are
the largest organized sector in society. Political parties are now positioning themselves
for the 2007 and 2008 elections, and unions will be involved. Especially as the garment
industry is the main economic engine of Cambodia."