In a wide-ranging annual report released yesterday, Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng deflected union complaints that the ministry had made it excessively difficult to register, noting that Cambodia has about 3,000 registered unions.
Union leaders and advocates continue to criticise the ministry, saying it has used criminal background checks to stymie registration efforts. But in the report, Sam Heng says the checks – which are carried out by the Ministry of Justice – are necessary to make sure that union leaders with criminal records don’t slide by.
“We have to require criminal record checks from the Ministry of Justice,” Sam Heng says in the report. “We are worried that a union leader who has active criminal cases in Phnom Penh Municipal Court will begin a union in the provinces.”
But the Ministry of Justice background checks only began to be enforced at the beginning of 2014, after the nationwide garment worker strike, said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU).
Criminal record checks are overly convoluted, requiring many steps and documents to complete, Thorn said yesterday.
“The criminal record [inspection] is very complicated for unions,” Thorn said. “Before, we never needed the criminal record inspection by the Ministry of Justice.”
Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center, took issue with the idea that because about 3,000 unions exist in Cambodia, union registration is easy.
Multiple unions have complained to the Solidarity Center in 2014 that the government seems to have been using requirements specifically to slow union registration, and continues to do so this year.
“For the first half of [last] year there was basically a freeze of registrations,” Welsh said. “It’s a really passive way to slow and freeze union registrations.”
The Labour Ministry report also notes that there was an 8.13-per-cent increase in factory inspections in 2014 from the previous year. Sam Heng says in the report that 50 factories have been warned about hygiene, safety and other issues, following inspections.
Ministry officials last year and this year seem to have put a greater emphasis on inspecting factories and pointing out faults when they are found, Thorn said.
“At least the Ministry of Labour has committed to [inspecting factories],” Thorn said. “I think that this is a way toward progress; before, they did not do this, they just allowed the factories to do what they do.”
Welsh also said that any increase in inspections and warnings to factories that deviate from required standards is positive. However, he added, it remains to be seen whether these warnings will be followed up.
Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour did not immediately reply to requests for comment.