By Alexandra Demetrianova
LAST week, a controversial Trade Union law was passed in Cambodia, which has put the country on the map for those who don’t abide by international labor standards. The legislature is in violation of the Cambodian constitution, activists say, while the law fails to include international standards on freedom of association and the forming of unions by workers.
On the contrary, the new legislature will bring trade unionists under an ever closer government radar, while giving it extra powers to dissolve unions.
Members of the Labor and Human Rights’ Defenders Alliance (HALDA) said in an open letter to the government and international community, that new Trade Union law should “align with Cambodian Constitution, UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and ILO Conventions 87 and 98”, which it currently doesn’t. The law lacks ILO convention 87, which stipulates “Freedom of association and protection of the right to organize” and convention 98 on “Right to organize and collective bargaining.” And since it limits freedom of association, it in fact could be unconstitutional, as the activists suggest.
“This sector is the rice pot for all of us. The government has the duty to protect this pot, so there is rice for us to eat.”
Despite pressure from workers and trade unions, as well as members of opposition and international labor rights groups, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CCP-led government has drafted and finalized the law without adding requested amendments to include the two key articles of ILO conventions. In parliament the law has been passed by 67 governing CCP votes against 31 opposition delegates from Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) voting against it.
Moeun Tola, from labor rights group Central, said prior to the voting last week: “The draft law is definitely unconstitutional and against the conventions. So when the law violates the Constitution and conventions, it will impact the international brands as well,” referring to the big international brands, who have their garments made in Cambodia. The sector employs 700,000 people, mostly women, who often support their families in the provinces. Therefore ILO “seal of approval” is crucial, Moeun Tola said.
The CCP-led government has defended the new law. Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng told Cambodian media, that “the legislation would bring stability and bigger investments.” Chheang Vun from CCP added, that the bill will ultimately benefit the workers themselves: “This sector is the rice pot for all of us. The government has the duty to protect this pot, so there is rice for us to eat.”
The “rice pot sector” is the US$5 billion textiles and footwear industry, which is the single biggest employer and driver of the economy in Kingdom of Cambodia. Mostly young women produce clothes and fashion goods in hundreds of sub-contractor factories across the country for big brands such as Nike, Gap, Wallmart, H&M, Puma, Adidas, Levi Strauss, Marks and Spencer and Inditext. But these are just a few of the major international brands making their textiles in Cambodia. These big companies have seen some disruption to the production in the sub-contractor factories through protests and strikes over low wages and workers’ rights.
NGO campaigns and media coverage have in the last decade exposed widespread abuses in non-air conditioned, hot and overcrowded factories, with long shifts, unpaid overtimes, low wages and exploitative practices such as harassment, violence at workplace and illegal short term contracts. All of this happens through growing trade unions and active civil society among garment industry workers. So once the freedom of trade unions is put under tight government control, the sector will truly stabilize, but at the cost of encroaching on workers’ rights.
“We’re worried as it will affect our rights to hold strikes.”
The efforts against the Trade Union Law and for labor rights in Cambodia’s garment sector have been internationally led, among many others, by Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). The pressure CCC has created has been directed at the big international brands, producing cheap textiles in developing Cambodia while earning huge profits on cheap labor and lack of workers’ rights.
“We have continously called on the brands to publicly support the union’s efforts to make the law in line with ILO conventions 87 and 98, both ratified by Cambodia. So far only few brands have come out with a statement. We continue to call on the brands to make sure they use their leverage and make sure that the women and men stitching their clothes in factories in Cambodia can exercise their rights to organize,” CCC said in a statement to Asian Correspondent.
Only H&M and Tchibo have joined the call on the Cambodian government to introduce a Trade Union Law aligned with ILO standards and conventions on freedom of association for workers. Other companies have remained silent.
The legislature has been controversial from the start and some 100 people clashed with notorious security forces of Dawn Penh district in front of the National Assembly, beating protesting workers and injuring at least two. Just moments after, the new Trade Union Law was voted for and passed last week.
“We’re worried as it will affect our rights to hold strikes. They (the government) will interfere in our work, they can suspend and dissolve us,” said Ath Thon, president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union at the protest prior to the voting at the National Assembly. The rules approved in the new Trade Union law in fact date back to rules from 2007, when business owners requested measures to prevent strikes by unions representing the 700,000 workers in garment industry. Since then, the sector has grown rapidly, reflecting the rising cost of labour in China.
The ever rising voices for workers’ rights and decent wages in Cambodia have seen a violent backlash from Cambodian government. This is not only the case for a garment sector dominated by international brands, but also local companies exploiting their employees. Workers’ attempts to strike and stand up for themselves regularly end up in violent clashes with security forces or pro-government groups. Recently in Phnom Penh, employees of Capitol Bus Company and their trade union leaders were attacked by members of government affiliated with the Cambodia for Confederation of Development Association (CCDA).
Capitol Bus employees and unionists had been protesting against trade union harassment, dismissal based on trade union activities and 6 months of unpaid work, only to be attacked with sticks, hammers and metal bars. Security forces, who intervened, targeted the striking group and arrested some of them. None of the people from CCDA were arrested. Later, four trade union leaders were charged with several offences, even though none of them was present at the Capitol Bus Company protests.
The treatment of striking workers has prompted strong reactions from Clean Clothes Campaign and International Trades Union Confederation, who condemned the violence and charges.
“We already had our concerns regarding freedom of association in Cambodia; These charges show a new level of deterioration in the state of trade union freedom in Cambodia, which is very bad news for Cambodian workers, in the garment industry and elsewhere,” Carin Leffer of CCC said.