PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On Monday, amid a violent clash between unions and district security forces that left at least two unionists injured, the National Assembly passed a controversial law that seeks to regulate the country’s numerous trade unions.
The law — which has undergone several drafts since 2008 and will apply to both worker and employer organizations — has provisions on how individuals can form a union, how the government will track its financials and how it may be dissolved.
Manufacturers in Cambodia say that the legislation is necessary given that the $6.2 billion apparel and footwear industry is plagued by frequent strikes. But in its current iteration, the law has been a lightning rod for criticism from local unions and international rights groups who believe that it will restrict a worker’s freedom of association and right to strike.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party boycotted the vote, and the law’s passage was all but guaranteed by the remaining 68 ruling party lawmakers. It passed at around 6:20 p.m., after an afternoon of debate between the two political parties.
Before the vote, CNRP lawmaker Ngoem Nheng demanded that there should be higher penalties against employers who violate it, instead of receiving the same fine as a worker. In its current form, the maximum fine is 5 million riel — roughly $1,250 — and is too low to be dissuasive.
“Five million riel is just a small amount of money for the employers, so the employers should be punished more severely than the workers,” Nheng said during the debate. “Such a small penalty will not discourage employers from blocking or deterring workers from holding demonstrations.”
But all concerns from the opposition party were swept under the rug. “We made this law to protect workers, and we are the state — we cannot discriminate against employers and employees,” said Chheang Vun, a ruling party lawmaker.
Sandra D’Amico, vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, said that she was “delighted” by the passage of the law, even though there were certain provisions she was unhappy with, such as needing 10 people to form a trade union — a threshold she considers low.
“In general, I think the law is very balanced….It holds all the parties accountable for bad practice,” she said, adding that the next step is making sure that the government enforces it. “The big box in passing a law is how we move to enforcement and how we transition to making sure everybody is informed of the law.”
Swedish retailer H&M said of the new law: “H&M has been following the drafting of the Cambodian Trade Union Law closely, which we understand has now been passed by a vote in the National Assembly. We are at the moment gathering information and can’t go into details except that we now need to look closely at how this will affect our ongoing work on strengthening industrial relations and ensuring that freedom of association and the right to organize is respected throughout our supply chain in Cambodia.”
Earlier in the day, the city installed barricades on all major roads leading to the National Assembly to prevent workers from gathering outside the building. Roughly 100 unionists remained undeterred, standing by the barricades to stage a protest by holding up signs and shouting slogans.
But this peaceful demonstration was marred with violence at about 10 a.m., when local security forces arrived to break it up. At least two unionists were chased and bashed in the head by district security guards.
Suth Chet, an officer with the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that he was pushed to the ground and left bleeding, with cuts to his eyes.
“They were so cruel. They chased me and beat me just for holding a peaceful protest,” he said. “These security personnel used violence and they injured me while our trade union was protesting to show that we do not support the law at all.”
Pav Sina, leader of the CUMW, said that such excessive use of force was evidence of the eroding rights of workers and trade unions in Cambodia.
“Since earlier this year, we have noticed that the rights of the trade unionists have been under pressure,” Sina said. “Unfortunately, the National Assembly still approved the law so the government will likely use it to restrict trade unions even more, even if we are holding a peaceful protest to demand for better working conditions.”
William Conklin, head of the Solidarity Center — a labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO — agreed. There are statutes within the law that he believes place disproportionate responsibility on union leaders, such as allowing for an organization to be de-registered if their leader has criminal charges levied against them.
“When you couple the ongoing move against unions, such as judicial harassment, where not only do you have injunctions against protesters and you have criminal charges levied on union leaders on flimsy pretenses…it is concerning,” Conklin said. “Given the climate in Phnom Penh in the recent past, where the city government seems to be denying the space for anybody to march or protest — and for those who do, they are using auxiliary or paramilitary forces against them — it seems to be keeping with that trend.”