The workers organising for a better future in Cambodia

The workers organising for a better future in Cambodia
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When she was elected to represent the local branch of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, or CCADWU, in 2007, Srun Sokthy felt alone and disheartened. She wasn’t receiving overtime pay from her employer – Chu Hsing Garment Co. Ltd, whose clients include the global denim brand Levi Strauss – and she felt almost powerless to lobby her boss for better working conditions. After 12 years and dozens of negotiation sessions, the 39-year-old worker now earns overtime, and benefits too. But the anxiety she used to feel is returning. “There’s a lot of fear from previous situations where workers were stopped [by the authorities],” Sokthy tells Equal Times. “This makes us quite nervous so we cannot do much activity as a union.”

In the past few years, Cambodia’s economy and its workers incomes have surged forward: GDP went from US$14.9 billion in 2014 to US$19.6 billion in 2018 according to World Bank data, while the minimum wage for garment workers, for example, increased from US$100 a month in 2014 to a projected US$190 a month in 2020. However, this hasn’t stopped union leaders from across sectors reporting increased repression as a result of an ongoing clampdown on all oppositional activity. Cambodians have lost significant personal freedoms since the nation’s 2017 commune elections, where the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) came close to eclipsing the majority Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979. Since that time, the government led by the world’s longest serving prime minister, Hun Sen, has repressed all forms of opposition, banning the CNRP and subsequently jailing former party activists, disbanding independent media in late 2017, and unravelling freedom of assembly.

Union leaders are also concerned about amendments to 10 articles in Cambodia’s Law on Trade Unions – particularly on new restrictions on trade union activities, which were signed into law in November 2019.

For example, Sokthy tells Equal Times that she previously gained benefits through collective bargaining with separate unions, but the new trade union law demands “most representative status”, which sees collectively bargaining undertaken by the union that holds majority membership within any given enterprise or sector (to the disadvantage of workers).

Even more damaging to Cambodian workers is an amendment that has functionally stripped unions of their right to hold legal strikes, says William Conklin, Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center, a non-profit workers’ rights organisation aligned to the AFL-CIO in the United States. “[Holding] a legal strike is always difficult, and I think the barriers in the Trade Union Law have actually made it more difficult,” he says. “The question is whether a union would have an illegal strike, and usually when that happens, it’s one or two days and then they go back to work.”

Cambodia’s labour rights are currently under intense scrutiny, as the European Union decides whether to rescind the nation’s ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) preferential trade status (which grants Cambodian exports duty-free access into EU markets as the nation develops its economy) in light of the government’s failure to curb labour and human rights abuses. The decision won’t come until February, but the EU sent its findings to the Cambodian government this month, and union suppression was listed as one of Cambodia’s most “serious and systematic” rights violations.

For Vorn Pao (sometimes known as Vorn Pov), a veteran labour activist and leader of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), the threat of sanctions is likely to be the last line of defence to ensure the protection of workers’ rights in Cambodia. Pao himself has been framed by the government in court cases and jailed for his participation in the widespread labour protests that took place in 2014. But today he says IDEA has stopped organising strikes out of fear of arrest, echoing other trade unionists interviewed by Equal Times. “When there’s international pressure, the government becomes more respectful of workers’ rights, and also the discrimination against trade unions decreases,” Pao says. “But only when there is international pressure.”


Chhim Sithar is the branch president for the Khmer Employees’ Labour Rights Support Union of NagaWorld, a five-hotel resort and casino in Phnom Penh. Sithar has been suspended for several months due to a dispute about NagaWorld prohibiting union members from wearing t-shirts calling for higher wages.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

Though she was suspended from her job without explanation, Chhim Sithar – a game floor supervisor at NagaWorld Casino and Resort – is urging her co-workers to be patient. She and the 4,000 members of the Khmer Employees’ Labour Rights Support Union of NagaWorld were already growing restless in their search for higher base wages: the company’s profits soared to US$1.47 billion in 2018, but housekeeping staff made a US$191 per month minimum.

When Sithar, a 30-year-old union president, was detained and then later suspended on 20 September 2019 for questioning why the company banned a t-shirt calling for higher wages, union members stopped working in protest. “This is a very strong message to the company that the workers are protective of their leaders and that they know how important union representation is in the company,” she says. From the first day of her suspension, Sithar says that she urged her colleagues to continue to work as usual, while organising subtle protest actions: over the past few weeks, for example, all union members have worn pink face masks, black armbands and other markers of solidarity as they enter and exit the tightly-guarded checkpoints of the complex.


Tuk-tuk driver Pov Soeurn has been a member of the informal workers’ association IDEA since 2007. The 38-year-old says he works “almost 24 hours a day” for an average income of US$10 daily.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

Soeurn started driving through Phnom Penh’s central Daun Penh district 11 years ago, at a time when chaos was at its peak. Drivers would regularly brawl over a customer or parking spot, and they had no power over police or wealthy residents in cars, who could hit a tuk-tuk without any repercussions. When Soeurn and some of his colleagues joined IDEA, they gained control over some of those conflicts: they could negotiate with the police to wait in front of shopping malls or tourist attractions, and in a traffic accident they could demand settlement money from offending drivers.

But the industry has changed, and Soeurn feels like he is struggling harder than ever before. Customers have been sparse. The Singapore-based ridehailing company Grab and other competitor apps have lowered their prices to win more users, but tuk-tuk drivers are stuck with low wages. Soeurn has downloaded every ride-hailing app that he can find, and he even bought a brand-new white tuk-tuk, which he adorned with blue-and-white IDEA stickers. However, he is deeply concerned about whether he will be able to pay back the US$5,000 microfinance loan he took out to buy the new vehicle. “Even if I voiced my concerns, it wouldn’t come with a solution anyway, because this is Cambodia,” he says. “I just go with the flow: if people now use an app, I will just adapt to the changes, because I can’t do anything more.”


Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), photographed in Phnom Penh on 15 November 2019.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

As the leader of IDEA, Vorn Pao’s work is not infrequently torpedoed by Cambodia’s political upheaval. He was detained and charged for participating in the wage protests of January 2014, where authorities shot and killed at least five protestors. Demonstrations of that strength have diminished due to tighter government regulation and fear of violence, but the activist says that it does not mean that workers, particularly informal ones, are receiving fair treatment. “In Cambodia, there’s quite good policy and laws, but there’s no implementation and the people still suffer,” he says.


Srun Sokthy, wearing a blue shirt, is the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCADWU). In this photo, taken in Phnom Penh on 16 November 2019, Srun shares lunch with her vice-president Eam Chanbuny.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

Between her job as a garment worker and caring for two young sons, Sokthy’s only respite is her hour-long lunch break, spent in a canteen or at her family’s dorm a few minutes’ walk from the factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. However, she says her life has improved since she joined the independent trade union, CCADWU.

When she started at Chu Hsing Garment Co. Ltd in 2007, Sokthy’s basic wage was US$35 per month. Through union negotiations and her decades of work, she now earns US$210 per month base pay, with another US$100 in overtime – a combined total that exceeds the national minimum wage for garment workers of US$182 per month.

CCADWU and other local unions represented in the factory banded together to gain further benefits: a US$10 per month stipend for transportation, early leave for pregnant workers, and establishment of a US$20,000 accident and emergency fund that’s paid for by the company. “We got even better benefits than what’s provided by the law. It’s all through the negotiations with the union,” Sokthy says.


On 18 November 2019, IDEA and Oxfam organised a workshop for IDEA’s street vendor members in Phnom Penh to educate them about their healthcare entitlements.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

Informal workers perform the jobs that fuel Phnom Penh – transporting tourists and workers, cleaning family homes, and serving lunches on the street. Yet they miss out on the benefits that an employee at a public or private company would receive, and they face higher risks without clear contracts or set wages.

Pao says that informal workers have gained some recognition as the government reforms worker protections, but this has not translated into concrete changes to workers’ lives. Though informal workers were acknowledged in the latest update to the national social security law, which was signed by Cambodia’s king in November, it will take a separate sub-decree from the prime minister for workers to access social security, Pao says: “The government is only doing this to show the EU, for the sake of EBA, that they’re actually respecting labour rights.”

IDEA spends a significant amount of time running awareness campaigns with its network of about 12,000 members. During a full-day workshop in November, participants learned about the potential inclusion of informal workers into the nation’s social security programme, as well as methods to explain the problems they face to village and commune leaders.


Oeum Nhanh is a construction worker at the Mekong Royal development complex just outside of Phnom Penh.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

For the last five years, it has been Nhanh’s job to sweep and carry cement bags at the construction site of the plush, new Mekong Royal gated community. She says that her co-workers have been hesitant to join her as member of the Building and Woodworkers Trade Union of Cambodia (BWTUC) because they are afraid of upsetting their employers. But she says she was motived to join the union because she wanted to be better protected and to provide a better salary for her family. “For my job, I’m not really worried about myself. I’m worried about my husband because he goes up to [work on] those higher levels [of the buildings].” On her day off, Nhanh stays at her steamy, tin-walled dormitory preparing snails for a weekend treat, caught from the pond behind the temporary housing unit where the construction workers stay. Another developer just started filling that pond for more land, and she predicts that the Mekong Royal will let them go and dismantle the housing within a year as the project completes.


Chhim Vy, 52, is originally from the central Cambodian province of Kampong Cham. He is member of Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC) and works on a construction site, where he also lives with his wife and two children. He is fearful about what will happen if his employer finds out that he is a member of a union.

Photo: Enric Català Contreras

Vy is relieved that he has never been injured since he started working in construction for he knows that he would not receive much in the way of compensation. Certainly not enough for a traditional Khmer funeral. There is no official data on the number of construction workers that have died in the buildings that are springing up all over Cambodia’s capital city, but anecdotally, there are stories of unrecorded deaths on many projects. “They keep the injuries hidden,” says Nhanh. “If I think about it, there must have been least ten people who have died on [this construction site]. But the companies don’t tell us anything.”

With additional reporting from Yon Sineat, Chan Muyhong and Thim Rachna.