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Workers in the dark on controversial draft union law

A union leader shouts slogans during a garment factory protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal court late last year.
A union leader shouts slogans during a garment factory protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal court late last year. Heng Chivoan

Workers in the dark on controversial draft union law

With the National Assembly set to vote on whether to adopt the controversial trade union law on Monday, the majority of Cambodia’s industrial workers remain unaware of the crossroads at which Cambodia’s employers and workers stand.

“I just heard in the news about [the union law], but I don’t know it in detail, whether it will advantage or disadvantage us,” one worker said during her lunch break in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district this week, expressing a view common among the many the Post interviewed this week.

The law is widely believed by critics to impinge on workers’ freedoms.

However, unions, which have previously relied on concerns about minimum wages to trigger workers to rally en masse and draw attention to their cause, have seemingly been unable spark the same emotion with the draft law – an abstract concept for many garment workers facing more immediate day-to-day concerns.

Union law violates human rights, finds OHCHR

While Cambodia’s larger and more prominent independent unions are taking a wait-and-see approach, threatening to mobilise workers if the law is passed on Monday as expected, small demonstrations during lunch breaks and a petition delivered to the prime minister via his Facebook page are about as much as they have been able to muster so far.

Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), is a lone wolf among a coalition of independents, having in recent weeks called for a nationwide strike in the lead-up to the National Assembly’s vote.

“Most of the unions don’t support my voice,” she said. “They agreed to only hold small protests in front of factories at break time by raising a banner or poster.”

The larger unions were “afraid that workers would not follow them on the union law, as it was not the minimum wage”, she added.

A unionist for more than a decade, Sophorn has organised and led more garment protests than she can remember. She helps organise educational sessions at individual factories to ensure her 10,000 members are up to date on the latest industry developments, and the draft union law is no different, she said.

“Whether workers strike or don’t strike depends on the union leaders themselves. If union leaders explain in detail the important issues that [workers] are facing, like losing their rights and freedom when the union law is implemented, [workers] will strike on these issues,” she said.

But the CATU boss doesn’t speak on behalf of all in the labour movement, and the disunity is mirrored on the factory floor.

A garment worker attaches labels to items of apparel in Phnom Penh.
A garment worker attaches labels to items of apparel in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Fractured floor

During the 11am break at an industrial area in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district this week, thousands of garment workers streamed out of a cluster of factories – as is their daily lunchtime routine.

Barely half of the workers interviewed by the Post had even heard of the union law, and of those that had, few understood how it might affect them.

“I don’t know what the union law means. The union leader in the factory did not tell me,” one worker said.

A couple of workers, however, did confirm that a union leader had explained the law in detail and that a deeper understanding had them ready to take to the streets.

“We are very concerned about it. If the law is approved and it is harmful for our job, we will discuss and wait for union leader decision to strike or not,” said one worker who asked not to be named as it could draw unwanted attention at her factory.

But these instances were few and far between. The education session was limited to just a small number of people, she said, as the factory had more unions of varying alliances than she could name.

Add to that mix the multiplicity of minority and pro-government unions operating in Russey Keo, as well as the complex web of union federations, and the information gets lost as it trickles down.

While proponents of the law claim they want to address this multiplicity of unions in factories, labour rights groups say these concerns are misguided.

“The unions have grown up due to external influences and not necessarily because workers want different unions,” said William Conklin, Cambodia country director at workers advocacy NGO Solidarity Center.

According to Conklin, politically aligned unions and employers establishing their own “yellow unions” to influence their employees are diluting the bargaining power of workers.

“If you look back, there are a variety of reasons that will not be addressed with this law,” he said.

While independent unions have come to accept the need for a law to help strengthen Cambodia’s fragile industrial relations, they say that the draft in its current state will only repress unions and in turn workers’ rights.

“If we create the union law, we should make it better than the labour law, which should give more freedom and rights to unions rather than restrict or apply more pressure,” said Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

International unions and workers’ rights groups, too, say provisions, such as requiring a 50 per cent plus one vote by members to authorise a strike, onerous financial reporting requirements, and education and age requirements for union leaders, are discriminatory and not in accordance with International Labour Organisation conventions.

Both the International Trade Union Confederation and Industriall have sent multiple letters to the government in the past year, acknowledging that while several reviews of the law have seen improvements, “it still fell well short of our expectations and more importantly, the requirements of international law”.

Brands silent

With lobbying efforts on the ground thus far having little impact, local and international unions and rights groups are hoping that major brands – whose orders provide jobs and theoretically political sway with the government – will use their bargaining power to influence the law before Monday’s vote.

Carin Leffler, urgent appeals coordinator at the international office of the Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, said that while some buyers have been working in the background to apply pressure, they had let workers down given the influence they could wield if they chose.

“As big buyers, they should have used their influence, collectively and individually, and in all possible ways,” she said via email. “They should voice their concern in public if they seriously want to see a law that respects worker’s most fundamental rights.”

“We are really puzzled as to why they are so quiet on this issue that will affect workers all over the country – taking into consideration they have been talking loudly on other issues like higher wages for garment workers,” she added.

The last time unions were able to rally workers on a large nationwide scale was in late 2013 and January 2014. Those protests came to an abrupt end when five protesters were killed after security forces opened fire with live rounds on a demonstration on the capital’s Veng Sreng Boulevard.

At the time, global clothing brands including Levi Strauss & Co, New Balance, Nike, Tesco Primark and Walmart came out in force, backing the UN’s call for an investigation into the deaths as well the implementation of a trade union law consistent with ILO standards.

No charges were ever brought in the shooting deaths.

Contacted this week, several brands said they had been signatories to another letter calling on the government to ensure the mooted law was in compliance with ILO standards.

“Levi Strauss & Co joined the joint apparel brand letter to the Cambodian government calling for greater consultation on the Trade Union Law and that the law fully respects the International Labor Organization conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining (Conventions 87 and 98),” reads an emailed statement from the jeans giant.

H&M also said in an emailed statement that it was important that “the law fully respects the ILO fundamental conventions on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and that relevant experts and stakeholders are consulted in the drafting process”.

Neither of the two labels would comment on what a law in breach of those conventions would mean for their sourcing, while Marks and Spencer and Primark did not return a request for comment.

Debate still lacking

For their part, despite the looming deadline, the ILO is not speaking publicly.

“We have communicated to the national government our comments on the law to be given to the National Assembly when it looks into the law on Monday,” said Maurizio Bussi, a director with the ILO’s decent work and technical support team for East and South East Asia and the Pacific.

But the lack of response from the ILO is “very disappointing”, said opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, who represented the Cambodia National Rescue Party on a bipartisan committee to review the law.

Chhay said clarity on the UN body’s position would help aid debate over the law.

The opposition lawmaker would not confirm whether his party would abstain from Monday’s vote, but said there was much work to be done on the law before it was ready to be passed through the assembly.

“The law should serve the rights of the workers and not put pressure on them,” he said. “The law is violating our constitution, our labour law and international laws. If this is going to be used to restrict the rights of our workers, it should not be adopted.”

A spokesman for the National Assembly confirmed yesterday that there was still room for debate before Monday’s vote, but with little action on the streets and international voices hesitant to speak out, the law looks set to sail through parliament.

Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng

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