An unsure future for labour rights

Departing director Dave Welsh.
Departing director Dave Welsh. Pha Lina

An unsure future for labour rights

Q&A/ WITH DAVE WELSH, DEPARTING COUNTRY DIRECTOR FOR THE LABOUR RIGHTS GROUP SOLIDARITY CENTER

After five years as Cambodia’s country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center, Dave Welsh is moving on. Remaining with the Solidarity Center, Welsh will be working instead in Indonesia. Before bidding adieu, Sean Teehan sat down with Welsh to talk about the progress he’s seen during his time in the Kingdom and to look ahead at what still needs to be done in the industrial relations sector.

Since you’ve been here, what improvements have you seen in the treatment of factory workers?
On one level, if you’re looking at the ILO Better Factories sort of overall compliance trend, you would say in terms of overall compliance, there hasn’t been [improvement], in fact, there’s been a downward move. But I think, more specifically, when you’re looking at things like wages and you’re looking at unions’ ability to actually not just advocate on the ground, but to generate a lot of international attention on these issues, that’s improved dramatically. The space that unions have crafted for themselves – hopefully with some help from us [the Solidarity Center] – to be able to advocate for these issues and create change has, I think, expanded dramatically over the past four or five years.

How has the union movement changed since you’ve been here?
It’s grown, certainly in terms of the union density in the garment sector ... [but] I maintain the future of the independent trade union movement rests outside the garment sector. What’s often missed is the fact that the vast majority of Cambodians are not garment workers. The only types of unions that are engaged in these [other] industries – whether they’re construction, hotel and tourism, food service, et cetera - are genuinely independent. And that growth has been very dynamic in the last four or five years.

What do you think are the key things that need to be done to improve labour rights in Cambodia, and how can that be accomplished?
The right steps are certainly not being taken at the moment. There’s a draft trade union law in the works, the government seems committed to pushing forward on that. The only problem is that the provisions that are central to that law are very much in violation of international labour law norms. New labour laws and trade union laws were supposed to expand and protect the rights of workers and the freedom of trade unions, not circumscribe them in the way that this current draft law’s doing. If the government doesn’t change track, it will be extremely damaging going forward for the reputation of Cambodia as an investment country, and as a viable garment sector as well. Issues like the elimination of the illegal use of temporary [labour] contracts, gender discrimination, genuine collective bargaining in the industry, a living wage, [and] safe workplaces [must be improved]. It’s doable, but there hasn’t been a good faith effort to achieve it to this point.

Are there any victories that the Solidarity Center or other labour rights organisations have achieved in Cambodia during your time here?
I think first of all, the publicity and the international publicity about the issues over the past five years, and international awareness and calling brands into account has been enormously successful. There has been progress made, the minimum wage has been effectively doubled over the past five years. Brands are also held accountable for events on the ground. This is the way forward, not just for Cambodia, but throughout the global garment sector.

Upon leaving Cambodia, what advice would you give to all stakeholders to improve the Kingdom’s labour situation?
Too often it seems that the government and/or industry feel that they can’t win or make progress unless unions and worker rights are hurt in the process. That’s not a very progressive approach and it’s not a very sustainable approach. The development of independent unions – not just garment workers, but throughout the country – actually is a long-term solution, not just in terms of social justice in the country, but in terms of the country’s economic growth. I encourage the independent unions in every sector, who have been very brave, certainly during my time here, to continue – peacefully – the advocacy efforts on behalf of issues like a living wage and trade union rights across the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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