Critics, activists and trade unionists in Cambodia: on the verge of outlaw status?

Critics, activists and trade unionists in Cambodia: on the verge of outlaw status?

Ms Rany, a teacher and politician in the coastal province of Sihanoukville, and 12 other teachers, all involved in politics, learned that they had been fired shortly after the opposition CNRP party was dissolved. “If the CPP continues to rule the country, I don’t think I can go back to work as a teacher,” she says.

(Enric Català)

[This article is accompanied by the mini-documentary "Psychological warfare and resistance, ‘Made in Cambodia’ (in three acts and an epilogue)".
Click here to watch the video.

What made you decide to participate in this Equal Times interview?

“I’m looking for help. I want better treatment, from both the Ministry of Labour and the company owners. [My message:] Please don’t protect only the employer; protect us, too. We want better treatment. In Cambodia, those who have money have power. Workers have no money to bribe, so how are they going to win? The fact is that employers always use money to make sure the authorities stay quiet.”

The person speaking is Lina (a pseudonym), a worker from Tbong Khmum province in south-eastern Cambodia with seven years of experience in the garment industry. Doek (pseudonym), a colleague of hers, adds:

“And the atmosphere is so demeaning…[sometimes they even] threaten us, they tell us someone with a samurai sword or a pipe is coming to beat us. They tell us that they could kill us whenever they want.”

Have these threats ever turned into action?

“Not recently, but in 2017 we were demonstrating [during our time off] in protest of the dismissal of one of our union members and the employer hired thugs to attack us. There were a lot of them, between 20 and 30.

A Pyrrhic victory

“If workers and unions are currently keeping quiet, it is not because conditions have improved, but because of the government’s warnings, threats and intimidation,” says Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU).

Monika Kaing, deputy secretary general for the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), vehemently denies this, claiming that the “calm” is mainly due to “continuously improving conditions, especially in the area of wages, compensation and social security coverage” in recent years, as well as the “maturity” of “industrial relations.”

Labour conditions in Cambodia have deteriorated so markedly that the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has ranked it one of the ten worst countries in the world for workers in its 2018 index.

The Cambodian trade union movement showed one of its biggest displays of strength in 2013 in the fight for a minimum wage. Although they were able to secure certain wage increases as a result of their mobilisation, which could be considered a victory for workers and unions, according to William Conklin, Cambodia director of the American labour non-profit the Solidarity Center, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Although certain things were achieved, “this mobilisation was suddenly seen as an existential threat to the government, which became that much greater when the opposition party, the CNRP, was able to capitalise [on the movement], manipulate it, or simply be opportunistic. So [the authorities saw that] they needed to bring it under their control.”

To do so, the governing party spared no method or tactic, from the weight of law and bureaucracy to the use of force.

“Most countries use their militaries for border control or natural disasters. In Cambodia, the military is used to protect the interests of businesses, like land concessions and factories. And it’s often deployed to help the government maintain control – of protesters, garment workers, NGOs, and communities. It is a recipe for disaster. It leads to injuries and sometime fatalities,” explains Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO).

Bora, who like his colleagues also uses a pseudonym for his safety, is the oldest of the group of garment workers who agreed to be interviewed by Equal Times. The interview took place at the offices of a local independent trade union in the capital, Phnom Penh. Bora is 37 years old and has spent the last seven years working in the garment factory where he now also works as a union organiser.

Like his colleagues, he is not from the capital, but from a province in the south bordering Vietnam.

Will you go on strike again to improve your situation?

“We will hold off on protest and try to seek legal assistance, to use legal instruments [to further our demands]…even though [we know] it’s not effective.”

Do you have faith in the legal system?

“We haven’t fought in the courts yet [but we know from our networks and the news] that the courts work for the benefit of the employers, because they receive money from them.”

Corruption, spoils system, kleptocracy, nepotism and… sustainable development?

Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. According to Transparency International’s 2017 index, it ranks 161st out of 180, despite the “relatively good” anti-corruption law that came into force there in 2011. Moreover, the separation of powers in Cambodia exists more in theory than in practice. As Yang Saing Koma, head of the opposition Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), puts it, there is no “separation between party, state and government.”

The rampant corruption, spoils system, kleptocracy and nepotism displayed by the government of Hun Sen (Prime Minister since 1985, and whose ruling Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] has been the only party in parliament since July) has weakened the entire social fabric.

The Prime Minister’s agenda of economic development at all costs, completely dissociated from any respect for human rights, ends up benefitting a select few and adversely affecting everyone else.

For Pilorge, this is crucial: “Cambodia is now categorised as the most corrupt country in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. We are also the country with the fastest deforestation and if you look in terms of rule of law and freedom of expression, we are always at the bottom. That says a lot. And in terms of these key issues affecting Cambodians and Cambodia, whether we’re talking about land grabbing, depletion of natural resources, or trafficking and so on, they are all interlinked. If you look at the reasons why people migrate to the countries where they might face abuse, it is often health-related or land. Again, they lose their land, they lose their livelihood, they lose their usage of forest and it leads to this migration, which leads to trafficking and abuse.”

The appropriation of land for economic exploitation – primarily logging, mining, agriculture and tourism – has affected at least 600,000 families, according to data from LICADHO, an organisation that has published a database of concessions made by the Cambodian government to local and foreign investors. “It’s difficult to say if the land grabbing has decreased or if the reporting of land grabbing has decreased. What we know for certain is that it is still happening.” And as Pilorge explains, it is happening in a fundamentally agricultural country where rural dwellers have traditionally depended on the land for their livelihoods, and where indigenous communities are “disappearing” because they are unable to live off the forests and they once did.

Dividing in order to conquer

It’s not difficult for NGOs like LICADHO and independent trade unions to work together on issues affecting communities, such as land grabbing, since in some cases workers in the informal sector from these communities are amongst those affected. These alliances, says Pilorge, are not welcomed by authorities who view them as a “problem” because, among other things, they could benefit the opposition.

“One of the reasons, if not the main reason, for introducing this legislation – the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations [LANGO] – for reinforcing the military and the police, increasing surveillance [...] is not only to target these groups and these individuals, but also to divide and conquer. One of the most successful tactics if you are going to target one group is, instead of attacking all of them – all the media, all the NGOs – target one or two, which then affects the others. Now, as soon as an NGO is accused or charged of a certain crime, the first thing that happens is that people in other NGOs, funding partners, embassies, will avoid them, will be suspicious of them, especially without an independent media. So you can have both results, you can weaken a certain entity that is challenging the leadership [of the country] and you can affect others. And this works particularly well in Cambodia because of its recent history and the high level of fear [editor’s note: between 1975 and 1979, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime killed between 1.7 to 2 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the country’s population at the time],” says Pilorge. And the problem is “more troubling,” she notes, when all this happens in rural areas and to individuals, trade unions, grassroots groups and small NGOs.

Passed in 2015, LANGO (which protects unity and national security, “peace, stability and public order,” including Cambodian culture, against defamation and damage to the country’s image), seeks to “control, weaken and divide both NGOs and independent unions,” says Pilorge. This comes on top of several other regressive laws that are still in force: a lese majeste clause in the Penal Code, the Trade Union Law, and the Law on Political Parties.

Laws and bureaucracy preventing unions from performing their duties

The attacks on independent trade unions (as opposed to ‘yellow’ unions or pro-CPP unions, which prioritise the government’s or employers’ agenda over that of workers), while not new, are significantly weakening their activities and putting their existence at risk.

The use of force and the attempt to co-opt leaders, new regulations or amendments to labour legislation, without the consultation or participation of workers’ representatives, strikes at the heart of the autonomy and recognition of trade unions. This is the case of the “unions with Most Representative Status” (MRS) legislation, which defines both the number of members required for a union to be recognised, and whether or not a union is able to negotiate with employers. Both employers and the administration, Conklin notes, “can take advantage of the MRS and avoid solving a problem or negotiating by simply saying: ‘If you don’t have MRS, I don’t have to deal with you.’”

“Freedom of association is very limited due to the current political environment – registering unions is very difficult, particularly in the case of independent unions such as ours. And, compared to the period before 2014, mobilising workers has become more complicated, since there are always ‘special forces’ – who we are unable to identify – that follow all our movements in the factory. Union leaders also have to be very careful with their comments to the media because the Hun Sen government controls the judiciary and can use the courts to deal with union leaders,” explains CCUs’s Rong Chhun.

“Add to this the fact that 80 per cent of the time, contracts are of short or fixed duration, which makes it difficult to create unions in factories and makes employees more vulnerable to reprisals (if they complain or join a union),” adds Chhun.

In this precarious context, trade unionists are unable to advocate for workers’ rights, or do so with great difficulty. Wage adjustment is one urgent matter facing workers, especially because the cost of living in Cambodia is increasing at a dizzying rate and wages are not keeping pace. According to Conklin, addressing this adjustment is a matter of political will: “Brands care about productivity, but not so much about labour costs. Despite what everyone says, stability, predictability and infrastructure are the determining factors, not labour costs. For example, two fixed costs are much higher in Cambodia: energy and shipping. And nobody is trying to adjust them.”

There is another concern for the unions. In a country in the midst of a construction boom, where work-related accidents are common (19 per cent of workers have suffered one, according to data from the Building and Wood Workers’ Trade Union Cambodia [BWTUC]), where no minimum wage has been established for the sector (as opposed to the garment industry), and where the majority of workers have suffered wage arrears, including them “in the National Security Fund and achieving a ‘fair’ minimum wage” should not be delayed indefinitely, urges Sok Kin, president of the BWTUC.

The problem of corruption exposes the country to even greater uncertainty when it comes to the future of work. On the one hand, the absence of educational reform – in a sector that, according to Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), is burdened by a web of corruption – will deprive the country of a generation educated on the challenges of automation. On the other hand, corruption “could also deter companies with cutting-edge and extremely expensive technology,” says Rong Chhun, from bringing their technology into the country.

Is there any space left for information, criticism and opposition?

Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that there remains space, however small and diminishing, for civil society organisations to operate. However, those organisations that specialise in respect for human and labour rights, freedom of expression, democracy, justice and the exploitation of natural resources are currently operating against a backdrop of “psychological warfare.”

“You expend so much time trying to create these levels of security, and [all of this] affects our work, but also [affects us] physically and psychologically. We all joke that we are slightly insane. But that’s how it feels, and it is very much based on this psychological warfare that is very effective… it makes it so difficult. But it also makes us stronger. What is difficult makes you stronger,” says Pilorge.

The media is also in the line of fire. As with trade unions and NGOs, the tactics used to silence dissent include “accusations of treason; high tax bills – generally thought to be politically motivated – which cannot be negotiated; and, as in our case, financial reasons,” explains Erin Handley, formerly a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post until it was sold – just before the July elections – to a company with previous ties to Hun Sen’s government. Significantly, Cambodia dropped ten places (to 142/180) in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

The consequences for the public are obvious: “The concern now is that the readers of Cambodia will be more exposed to propaganda than to real journalism,” explains Handley.

And, for those media outlets still in operation, self-censorship, whether by editors or by journalists, could influence what and how they report. “Even though everyone is very courageous, when a local journalist is threatened, it’s much more real [foreign journalists are able to leave the country easily, whereas local journalists are only able to do so in limited cases],” she says.

Lam Chantha knows better than most. She is the wife of Yeang Sothearin, the former editor of the US-funded Radio Free Asia until it was involuntarily shut down in September 2017. Accused of espionage by the Cambodian authorities, Sothearin was detained and placed into preventive custody on 14 November, 2017. He was released in late August, though the charges against him have yet to be dropped. In addition to the shocking nature of these charges (espionage and production of pornography), the feeling of helplessness, the lack of information, the fear, and the economic hardships resulting from Sothearin’s detention have been extremely difficult on the couple and their two children.

In addition to the media, freedom of expression in schools has also been limited. According to Professor Ouk Chhayavy, teachers feel pressured to avoid certain topics with their students, the country’s next generation of voters. Those who belong to unions have to be even more cautious – they risk discrimination (physical distancing, restrictions on training), having to teach in cities far away from their homes and, if they get involved in politics, losing their jobs (according to the CITA union).

This is exactly what happened to Ms Rany, a teacher and politician in the coastal province of Sihanoukville. She and 12 other teachers, all involved in politics, learned that they had been fired shortly after the opposition CNRP party was dissolved. “If the CPP continues to rule the country, I don’t think I can go back to work as a teacher. I have to find another job to make a living. Cambodia is not a democratic country now,” she says.

Social network users are also not safe from scrutiny by the authorities. Shortly before the July elections, the Ministries of the Interior, Telecommunications and Information issued a joint directive criminalising any comment or information that undermines “national security, public interest and social order.”

International sanctions

The “radical shift to the use of tactics directed at NGOs, media outlets, the international community, the opposition party, citizens and activists,” started to become noticeable “during the 2013 general elections, but particularly starting with the June 2017 municipal elections,” recalls Pilorge.

It was during these elections that the opposition CNRP party became too competitive with the CPP, winning 44 per cent of the votes. In November, months after the CNRP achieved this milestone, the Supreme Court ordered the party’s dissolution. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was accused of treason and taken into custody. He was released on health grounds on 10 September, but remains under house arrest. The rest of the party’s deputies have either been disqualified from political activities, have legal cases against them, or have gone into exile.

And that brings us to the most recent general elections, held on 29 July of this year. In this election, the CPP won all 125 seats in parliament and will govern without any opposition. Though this overwhelming victory is certainly due in part to the unconditional support of a part of the population, it is equally or in greater part due to the fact that the party used the whole apparatus of the state to remain in power: it refused to allow the CNRP list despite domestic and international appeals, thus preventing the participation of any real opposition; it silenced critical media; it created an atmosphere of fear (to express or dissent); and, from teachers in remote villages to the military, gendarmerie, police, everyone worked to ensure the victory of the CPP and to prevent ‘treason’ against Cambodia. Then came the “colour revolution,” which the CPP denounced as a supposed plot by the United States, the EU and other countries and organisations to overthrow Hun Sen’s government – and criticising Hun Sen, his government or the CPP is a form of treason.

Because of the contempt that Hun Sen’s government has for human rights and the rule of law established in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the 1993 constitution, Cambodia could lose its preferential access to the European market if it does not implement “credible and satisfactory measures.”

On 5 October 2018, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced that the EU would initiate a process that could result in the suspension of the Everything But Arms (EBA) programme for Cambodia. This initiative, aimed at promoting economic development by creating jobs in “less developed countries,” grants Cambodia duty-free access to the EU Single Market for its products. Ending this preferential treatment could cost Cambodia around US$676 million a year or €594 million (according to a letter that leaked in late 2017). It should not be forgotten that the EU is Cambodia’s main export market (even though China has become one of the country’s major investors, and does not insist on respect for human rights) – and that the garment industry represents 75 per cent of all exports to this bloc.

According to European Commission sources, it has slightly less than 12 months to make a final decision regarding the ending of preferences and will maintain in the meantime as it has done previously, an open channel of dialogue, since “the objective is to improve the situation for people on the ground.”

The garment sector represents US$5 billion (about €4.4 billion) of business for Cambodia and employs 750,000 people (in a country with a population of just over 16 million), mainly women.

In August, the United States announced an expansion of visa restrictions (initiated in December 2017) for all individuals who undermine Cambodian democracy.

In Cambodia, some support this international pressure: “If we want to force the Hun Sen government to respect human rights and democracy, sanctions are necessary. It will affect workers, but only for a short period of time.

“Over the long term, it will improve the conditions of workers. I think it’s better to suffer in the short term in order to achieve better conditions for our workers, respect for human rights and democracy, rather than continue working under terrible conditions for fear of losing our jobs,” says Rong Chhun.

But those whose jobs would be directly impacted remain cautious. Bora, one of the workers in favour of the EU intervening “so that the Cambodian government listens” to his problems “and resolves them,” understands that, if that means losing his job, the situation could become very difficult.

“We can’t lose our jobs. We can’t stop working, we have to make money. I have to take care of my kids, support my wife, help my parents…”

This has been Hun Sen’s strategy: advancing his short-term development agenda by ignoring the red line, sure that his Western partners would not take steps that could harm the most fragile link in the chain, the worker. But will these measures have any favourable impact on respect for human rights and the rule of law? The general impression is that, a best, everything will remain as it is (albeit with some cosmetic changes, like the events of recent days) and, if the Prime Minister feels that his grip on power is threatened, the situation will get worse.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

Danielle Keeton-Olsen participated in this report. Interpretation and assistance: Leng Len.

This report and the accompanying video have been made possible by funding from Union to Union, an initiative of Swedish trade unions, and with support from the ITUC.