Cambodia tightens its grip on labour unions


On 4 April 2016, two Cambodian trade unionists were beaten by police in Phnom Penh.

For some, the violence may not have been seen as anything particularly remarkable; after all, Cambodia’s already poor reputation with regards to its treatment of workers and unionists has been widely documented.

The fact that it happened just hours before the parliamentary passage of the country’s new Trade Union Law, however, served to compound the government’s attitude toward critics of the document who have long argued that its drafting was a murky and non-inclusive affair.

The law is currently before King Norodom Sihamoni – whose signature is the final step on its path to full legislation.

From its inception in 2008 to now, the lifespan of the new law has been accompanied by a series of significant labour-related events.

In 2010, tens of thousands of workers went on strike for a higher minimum wage, followed by similar strikes in late 2013 and early 2014, which were fatally crushed by government forces who opened fire, killing five civilians, and jailing 23 unionists and workers.

The new law has been described as “anti-union” by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which said that key concerns are that it would “impose new limits on the right to strike, facilitate government intervention in internal union affairs and permit third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions – while at the same time imposing only miniscule penalties on employers for unfair labour practices.”

The garment sector is a big earner for Cambodia; its approximately 700,000 workers earn a minimum wage of US$128, but bring in US$5.7 billion in revenue. Union activity has been at the very heart of their lengthy bid to earn a living wage, one that reflects the costs that have risen around them as the country’s economy has grown.

Although initial concerns considered the impact on would-be unions, the language in the law is also set to restrict the activities of unions that already exist. One of the most critically problematic articles, according to Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, would make it nearly impossible for large unions to fulfil new quorum criteria in order for any decisions to be made.

Article 13.4, requires a quorum to be “the absolute majority (at least 50 per cent + one) of the union’s total members for every meeting to decide on conducting strike, amending the statute or for the general assembly of the union.”

It is still too early to know to what extent the law will have, but on 4 April, the International Labour Organization (ILO) urged the government to establish “effective tripartite consultations and even advisory mechanisms” to “ensure a common understanding of the law’s contents and its application.”

For the likes of the Coalition of the Cambodia Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), which has about 80,000 members, satisfying these legal measures is set to be an administrative and logistical nightmare, if not all-out impossible, when its current mandate ends next year and it has to re-register and hold elections.

CCAWDU vice president Kong Athit told Equal Times that the law was ultimately born of a need to exert pressure and control on the unions. He said when employers first proposed it in 2008, their feeling was that “trade unions disrupted business…so the government needed to do something.”

He said it’s likely that smaller wildcat strikes could be staged over the coming months, but is less sure that we will again see mass strikes on the scale of those seen between 2010 and 2014.


“Not an attempt to stifle anything”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said the law was necessary because the union sector was in “anarchy,” which in turn was impacting on investment.

Loo said the law’s importance extends beyond the need for Cambodia to remain competitive – something GMAC said was “tough” in a report last year and is “more about allowing investors to operate in an environment that’s acceptable” to them.

“[T]he employers as part of working group suggested to the government that the proliferation of trade unions and rampant illegal strikes were getting out of hand, so we…asked the government to pass a law that would create new boundaries that trade unions could operate within,” Loo told Equal Times.

“The law applies to employers as well…. It’s not an attempt to stifle anything.”

According to Tola, the Labour Law – passed in 1997 – was comprehensive enough, because it already included provisions on the right to organise trade unions, collective bargaining and strikes.

He said while the new law has been a victory for the Federation of Business Associations, it’s mostly going to serve the interests of a government shaken by the groundswell.

“This comes to a benefit of the government, because they are concerned about the movement of labour,” Tola said, referring to the 2010, 2013 and early 2014 strikes.

“I see an effort to control the labour movement with this, and similar efforts to control civil society with the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations,” he said.

“In 2013, it was clear for the government to see that the labour movement was really strong. That’s why the government really rushed to have them passed. They could see the effectiveness of the labour movement.”

William Conklin, Cambodia country director of the US-based Solidarity Center, believes that “the origins of the bill are not necessarily about improving labour relations,” and instead, are “more about political control.”

“Do you want [the law] to improve labour relations and make sure unions are registered, that collective bargaining can be done and they have protection, etcetera, or do you want to be able to control unions and use the power of bureaucracy and stymie growth of unions?” he said.

Conklin doesn’t think the government is “diametrically opposed” to unions, “but they like the idea of unions that can be controlled and do what the government wants.”

Athit, from CCAWDU, said the “general intention” of the law is to ensure that the state “has more power to influence all the processes that unions need to take action in organisational management and politics of the organisation,” meaning both external and internal affairs.

As for the law in general, Loo said it wouldn’t be fair if it was only satisfactory to one side. But he said the concerns about Article 13 shouldn’t be a problem, because it’s “clear in the Labour Law and falls in line with any democratic rule, that you must have a majority” to make decisions.

For an enterprise-level union that’s less of a problem; if you’re a smaller branch, it’s easier to form a quorum. For CCAWDU to call for a strike, however, Athit foresees issues in securing that majority under one roof.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Suor was sent several questions about the law and the reactions to it, but said he would not comment and urged the ITUC to “have a glance on Asean members union laws before making any analysis or judgement.”