PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In a recent letter to the Ethical Trading Initiative — which represents retailers concerned about the passage of a bill proposed to regulate the country’s unions — the Cambodian labor minister repeatedly stressed that the controversial law will not suppress workers’ freedoms.
The draft law, which has gone through many revisions since it was first created in 2008, has attracted much criticism from independent unions and international rights organizations, including IndustriALL and Human Rights Watch. While the aim of it is to regulate the country’s more than 3,000 unions — which manufacturer blame for a disjointed movement that leads to unreliable collective bargaining agreements — the unionists believe the law restricts their freedoms to form an organization and to protest, and has the potential to be used to unfairly dissolve established unions. The National Assembly has plans to pass it next month.
ETI, a London-based labor rights NGO that works with brands and companies, sent a letter to Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Dec. 15 exhorting the government to consult with social partners on the law. Obtained by WWD, ETI’s letter included 14 signatories — all major brands sourcing from Cambodia, including H&M, Gap, Inditex and Marks & Spencer.
Urging the ministry to ensure that the legislation respects the International Labour Organization’s conventions on freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining, ETI also requested that the law “does not place overly intrusive requirements on unions to report on their financing, nor place restrictions on workers’ eligibility to hold union office.”
Sam Heng sent back a letter assuring ETI that the draft law was open to consultation from unions, employers and the ILO, and claimed that the process was “thorough and inclusive,” according to the Jan. 15 letter obtained by WWD.
It also took issue with the brands’ worries about any violation to ILO conventions, explaining that “overall, the law provides full freedom to workers and employers to form their respective professional organization at their own choice without restriction and discrimination.” As for an individual’s right to strike, the minister said this is not restricted as long as it is done according to the Labor Law, which requires prior notice to employers.
Sam Heng also claimed there was no ulterior motive behind the requirement for unions to submit their finances, which includes information of all its donors.
“[We] would also like to inform you that the ministry does not have any ill intentions to control the management of their fund,” he said.
Sam Heng also insisted that the law will not impede on the freedoms that workers enjoy to unionize and will help cultivate more conducive industrial relations between unions and manufacturers.
“[We] would like to emphasize that the [law] is not developed to suppress the freedom of association,” he said. “In contrary, it is aimed at defending the rights and interests of workers and employers….And it serves the common interest of the country; it is neither for employers nor workers.”
William Conklin, country head of the Solidarity Center — a labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO — called the minister’s letter “disingenuous” when asked to comment on the contents of the letters obtained by WWD.
“It hasn’t been consulted enough and there was heavy involvement from the Ministry of Interior in the development of the draft in 2014,” he said. Conklin added that the requirements for financial reporting were “intrusive.”
“It’s important for the unions to be financially accountable to their members, not to the government,” Conklin said. “And when [the government] says they are not going to use that information, then they don’t really need it.”
Last year, Cambodia exceeded $6.2 billion in apparel and footwear exports. But the year was marred by more than 100 strikes within the sector, which holds roughly 600 factories and employs 700,000 workers.