Cambodia’s government should make public a proposed law aimed at regulating the country’s labor movement, a rights group said Thursday, amid concerns that it includes provisions for the suspension of unions and for severely restricting their right to freedom of association.
Requests from civil society to review the Law on Trade Unions, which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration has pledged to adopt by the end of the year, have so far been denied, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said in a briefing note.
Additionally, the group said, recent reports of new unions being refused registration by the authorities or having their registrations delayed constituted “a direct attack on the right to freedom of association.”
Since December last year, CCHR said it had documented six cases in which the authorities have denied or delayed new union registration, or threatened license revocation.
“It is evident that the right to freedom of association is heavily stifled in Cambodia, exacerbated further by what CCHR has documented as the increasing suppression of union registration since December 2013 to date–either through denying or delaying new registration, or through threats of license revocation,” it said.
“The dire situation of freedom of association, particularly for unions, has the potential to be made worse when compounded by the adoption of the impending Law on Trade Unions, with its probable provisions for the suspension of trade unions, which have been publically referred to by [government] officials.”
Cambodian laws at present have provisions protecting the right to freedom of association and allowing workers the right to strike and engage in non-violent demonstrations.
But only about one percent of the total workforce is unionized with the vast majority of organized workers found in the garment industry, the country’s top revenue earner.
A first draft of the Law on Trade Unions was introduced by Hun Sen’s administration in 2011, but was shelved after concerns that it would make unions vulnerable to de-registration, presented barriers to prospective union leaders, and allotted too much power to the government, among other factors.
But CCHR said that the law was apparently submitted for review by the Council of Ministers in late 2013 and the government intends to pass it by the end of 2014.
In addition to wanting the draft law to be made public and incorporate feedback from relevant stakeholders, CCHR called on the government to “ensure union registrations are resumed immediately and that registration requests are not further delayed.”
It said that in particular, Cambodia’s garment sector “is plagued by widespread disregard for and violations of the right to freedom of association.”
CCHR said that in the past several years, Cambodia had increasingly been seen as a dangerous place for trade unionists, who are frequently met with violence and arrest for their activities, while strikes and protests led by unions are often dispersed violently by authorities, including through the use of gunfire.
Union workers and representatives are regularly sacked or targeted with legal action by factories as a result of their activities, the group said, while the government has threatened unions that they will have their licenses suspended or cancelled if they participate in further strikes.
Additionally, CCHR expressed concern over incidents of union leaders receiving death threats or even being killed as a result of their union activities.
CCHR said that businesses in Cambodia have made attempts to end the right to unionize, while some factories have even refused to receive notifications for union formation, producing lengthy delays.
The situation for the country’s civil servants—many of whom earn “unlivable wages”—is even worse than it is for general workers, as they lack the freedom to form unions to protect their rights and increase their wages, it said.
Reactions to briefing note
Responding to CCHR’s briefing note Thursday, Ath Thon, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) said that independent garment unions endure difficulties operating, and even registering with the Ministry of Labor.
“The CCHR report reflects the truth,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“In general, we are facing huge problems in doing our jobs … Employers use their money and power to routinely pressure the unions,” he said.
Ath Thon also expressed concerns over the draft Law on Trade Unions, which he said would whittle away at union rights.
“The government must ensure that the draft law complies with international standards … [and] should hold more discussions, including with the ILO.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, claimed Thursday that international nongovernmental organizations had been consulted on the draft law.
“Cambodian laws do not only follow Cambodia standards—we always take international law into account,” he said.
“International NGOs have participated in the draft law.”
Meanwhile, a group of eight garment unions was set to launch a nationwide stay-at-home strike Thursday following the end of Khmer New Year celebrations a day earlier, to demand a higher minimum wage in the sector as well as the release of 21 protesters imprisoned following a January strike.
A violent police crackdown on the strike by garment and footwear workers n the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh left five people dead and wounded nearly 40 others.
According to a report Thursday by the Cambodia Daily, the unions have been spreading the word for the past several weeks about the stay-at-home strike and expressed optimism that as many as half the country’s roughly 600,000 garment workers would stay home in protest.
“We expect more than 50 percent of the workers not to come to work until April 22 to demand that the government and Ministry of Labor release the 21 prisoners and give them a U.S. $160 [monthly minimum] wage,” Far Saly, president of the National Trade Union Coalition, told the daily.
“We have informed our workers, handed out 100,000 leaflets and spread the information through social media and word-of-mouth,” he said. “We will wait and see how many factories will be open or closed.”
The garment sector generated more than U.S. $5 billion in revenue last year and the last round of strikes cost the industry U.S. $42.2 million in lost production, the Cambodia Daily reported, citing data from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners.
The unions have asked for the stay-at-home strike to avoid another violent confrontation and to take advantage of the Khmer New Year holiday.
GMAC officials, however, have said that the strike was unlikely to have much of an effect on the industry as most factory owners already gave their workers time off for the New Year until April 21.