OFFICIALS from the Free Trade Union (FTU) will file assault charges against
leaders of the Cambodian Union Federation (CUF) after violence outside the
Trinunggal Komara garment factory on March 21.
The FTU's George McLeod
added that his union would also petition the International Labor Organisation
(ILO) to withdraw its recognition of the CUF, which he described as "a tool to
destroy the independent labor movement".
Observers said the conflict
highlighted a growing problem within the country's labor movement, with some
players colluding with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MoSALVY) to
circumvent the law.
"The incident at Trinunggal shows us how companies,
unions and the ministry collude to shut out the activist unions," said Jason
Judd, country representative of the American Center for International Labor
McLeod said CUF representatives assaulted him while he tried
to photograph industrial action outside the factory. He said CUF president
Chhoun Mom Thol tried to confiscate both his and Judd's cameras.
incident arose after FTU members were barred from union elections despite
claiming a majority of members at the factory. The FTU said up to 80 percent of
the 1,000 employees boycotted the vote.
The factory's Indonesian owners
only permitted candidates from the allegedly CPP-linked CUF to stand in the
March 22 election. The CUF has been accused of having little desire to advance
its members' interests.
The factory's major buyer, US-based The GAP
clothing company, has since stepped to broker new elections. McLeod said
discussions on new elections were ongoing.
CUF's Mom Thol denied any
collusion and claimed his union was acting within the law.
"There was a
declaration from [MoSALVY] following to Article 288 of the Labor Law," he said.
"The union with the majority presence at the factory has the right [to field
election candidates] and CUF's position is backed 100 percent by
The FTU disputed that interpretation and also disagreed with Mom
Thol's assertion that his union had the majority of members at the
"If they believe they have the majority of members then they
should be happy to test that at a free and fair election," said
He said the union movement is divided between nearly a dozen
unions, some of whom collude with factories against the interests of their
He claimed that while the CUF focused on complying with owners'
wishes, other unions were run more like extortion rackets where only the
leadership benefited from industrial action.
"It's becoming more
widespread, and a real problem for the independent unions," McLeod said. "These
unions will call a strike, make unreasonable demands and then take a payoff to
end the action.
"It's bad for the industry, bad for the credibility of
the union movement and now workers are becoming very cynical about the ways in
which they are being used."
Honey Mindanao of the Luen Thai factory is on
the executive council of the Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia
(GMAC). She confirmed some unions routinely made demands for
"Some unions are slowly getting more responsible but others act
just like a business," she said.
By way of example, she said, the Luen
Thai factory negotiated the settlement of a labor dispute with the FTU in March
2002, only to find that a second union hijacked a small group of workers and
demanded separate negotiations.
She said that group, led by Morm Nhim of
the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, blockaded factory
gates, lit bonfires and manufactured petrol bombs before demanding a meeting
"This was not the recognized union at Luen Thai and the
FTU had agreed the strike was improper," she said. Despite that, she said, Nhim
only offered to end the strike if "severance pay" of "seven or eight thousand
dollars" was paid.
Nhim denied that: "I never demanded any cent from
anyone. We are never involved, with those who offer bribes," she
Mindanao acknowledged that factory collusion in pay-offs
contributed to the problem.
"It's a very serious debate within GMAC. We
can't compel factory owners not to solve the problem in this way, but we are
trying to educate them to deal with unreasonable unions without resorting to
payoffs," said Mindanao.
Other GMAC members were less insistent.
Assistant secretary-general David Van preferred to play down the problem saying
payoffs were a "private affair" between individuals and factories. GMAC was
happy simply to see disputes resolved.
"I guess in any business you have
some black sheep but this is the reality of the problem. We cannot impose a
solution," said Van. "There may well be cases like this, but this is a
case-by-case problem between factory managers and workers. Our message to our
members is that no matter what happens there must be dialog."
moves toward collective bargaining agreements would root out corrupt
"I think it's a sideshow," he said. "These shenanigans just
belong to the government unions. Workers can figure out which unions are bona
fide. Most unions are busy organizing workers and busy bargaining."