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Surya Subedi Concerned Over Industrial Climate in Cambodia

The United Nations human rights envoy expressed worries over the treatment of garment factory workers and unionists.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — United Nations human rights envoy Surya Subedi said he remains concerned over the industrial relations climate in Cambodia.

In a statement released on Tuesday, following the conclusion of his 11th mission to Cambodia in his role as the country’s special rapporteur on human rights, Subedi said that meetings with government, trade unions, buyers and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia had been productive, and all parties had agreed on criteria for setting the country’s minimum wage — a source of ongoing tension.

However, Subedi also expressed worries over the treatment of garment factory workers and unionists, following several violent crackdowns during labor disputes stemming back to November.

“In my interaction with various stakeholders on labour issues, I was concerned to hear that some workers and trade union leaders have faced threats and acts of intimidation as a result of their involvement in industrial action,” Subedi said.

On Nov. 12, security forces opened fire on protesting garment workers from SL Garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, killing an innocent bystander and arresting two people swept up in the rally.

Barely two months later, during nationwide strikes on Jan. 2 and 3 calling for an increase to Cambodia’s minimum wage to $160, security forces again used live rounds against protesters, killing at least five and injuring dozens more.

Some 23 unionists, workers and bystanders were arrested during the January strike, and ever since the deadly crackdown, rights groups and unions have been accusing the government of restricting workers’ rights to freedom of assembly, pointing to the frequent detention of union leaders.

No security forces have been charged for the use of live ammunition in any of the fatal events, and the government has long argued that the force has been needed to maintain order.

The people arrested in November and January were charged on May 30, but were released on suspended sentences. While Subedi said he was pleased with this outcome, the judicial process remained troubling.

“I am disturbed by the criminal convictions against these individuals, which were unsubstantiated by credible evidence following trials which, according to many independent observers, did not meet international fair trial standards and, in many cases, were entered against individuals who did nothing more than exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” he said.

“I wish to call upon the government and other stakeholders to take all necessary measures to ensure that the trade union rights of all workers in Cambodia are fully respected and that trade unionists are able to exercise their activities in a climate free of intimidation and risk to their personal security.”

The United Nations special rapporteur also appealed to the government to overhaul the current draft law on trade unions to ensure that it meets International Labour Organization conventions before it is passed.