PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — When Ath Thorn was 20 years old, he worked at a Chinese-owned garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Protection for workers was nonexistent then and Thorn’s employer demanded excessive overtime from its staff. Working daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and also on public holidays, Thorn said although he lacked knowledge about the country’s labor laws then, he knew that this treatment was not right.
“Some workers also worked 24 hours….The rights of the workers were not there,” he said. “I wanted to challenge [the management] because I didn’t think workers should be working like that.”
Thorn then led three successive strikes against that factory, with more than half its workers joining him to protest against the arduous hours.
“It was a very interesting time,” Thorn said. “I settled many cases. The company wanted us to work overtime, but I just did not agree with it.”
Almost 17 years later, Thorn is now the country’s most recognized labor organizer in his role as the president of the Cambodia Labour Confederation and its member union, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. His confederation commands a membership of roughly 110,000 people, while CCAWDU represents about 80,000 garment workers across the country’s more than 500 factories.
His organization, along with other independent unions in Cambodia, is currently fighting to stop the passage of a proposed law aimed at regulating unions. First written in 2008, the controversial draft law has gone through several iterations and consultations with the government, opposition party, employers and unions, and is now at the National Assembly awaiting revision. A parliamentarian said the draft law is likely to be passed in mid-April.
While manufacturers say the legislation is necessary to curb the industry’s problem of wildcat strikes and infighting between unions, labor activists claim that even in its latest form the law threatens an individual’s freedom of association and right to strike, and places disproportionate responsibility on each organization’s leader.
Simply put, if the law in its current form was enacted 15 years ago, Thorn said he would not have been able to help organize workers to protest against his factory’s excessive overtime hours.
At stake is an industry that brought in more than $6.2 billion in apparel and footwear exports in 2015, showing a growth of about 7 percent compared to the year before. But this period has also been plagued with more than 100 strikes, according to data from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which calculated more than 450,000 man days lost as a result.
The Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, of which GMAC is a member and will also be subjected to the law when it is enacted, has expressed repeated concerns about the industry’s growth and sustainability. With thousands of unions working within the country’s roughly 600 exporting factories, the movement is disjointed, making it difficult for manufacturers to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that hold the test of time.
“Enforcement of sanctions for illegal behaviors is almost nonexistent today. Disruption of the workplace by outside minority unions is common, including harassment and intimidation of workers and employers,” CAMFEBA said in a white paper published last year, explaining that a factory may have “anywhere from three on average to 10 unions” on its floor. “Cambodia’s industrial relations environment can be described as a slippery slope, complex and problematic at a time when reforms are focused on diversification of the economy and attracting other higher value-added labor intensive industries.”
Sandra D’Amico, vice president of CAMFEBA, also pointed to a general lack of respect by the unions, who she said hold strikes and protests without informing employers.
“There needs to be respect of all parties – unions, government and employers – in moving toward enforcing the law and holding everybody accountable who doesn’t comply with the law because that’s the only way we can have a more predictable environment,” D’Amico said. “That is the real challenge to address because it is stopping us from getting diversified investment in the country because we need to be able address the industrial relations.”
One of CAMFEBA’s main issues with it is that the law had been recently revised to state that 10 people can come together to form a union, a clause that does not address the country’s problem of union multiplicity.
“I think it is not constructive to have such a low number because it is not addressing the challenges that we have today,” D’Amico added.
But international labor rights organization IndustriALL said in its current form, there are other articles that could prove insidious to the union movement.
“There are provisions which may look innocent at first sight, but could be used to curtail the functioning of the union,” said Jyrki Raina, IndustriALL’s general secretary.
Annual financial reporting to the government and the time limits placed to successfully register an organization is problematic, Raina said, as is the article that if union leaders break the law, then authorities can use this as a reason to dissolve an entire organization instead of simply firing the leader.
This is especially worrying given the current climate that unions are facing now in Cambodia — a holdover from January 2014, when government forces opened fire at protesting workers and left at least five dead. This clash came after weeks of a nationwide strike for a higher minimum wage organized by six union leaders. While the perpetrators of the shooting were never brought to justice, the six unionists were slapped with a litany of charges filed by manufacturers, including aggravated violence and causing damage to property.
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and one of the individuals charged, said the court has continued to keep tabs on her and the other organizers.
“We have to report on our monthly movements to the government and we are not allowed to hold any strikes or protests and we aren’t allowed to be in any groups larger than eight,” she said. “If I don’t show up [each month] they can detain me. If I don’t go, they will catch me at my house or workplace and it will affect my family.”
Ranked as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia in 2015 by Transparency International, Cambodia’s judicial system has long had a reputation of being swayed by political and commercial elites.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Labor said the law should not be blamed for an institutional issue.
“The two parties are from two contradictory point of views and if you draft a law that satisfies only one party and upsets the other, then it means it is unbalanced,” he said.
Son Chhay, a parliamentarian with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party who took part in committee meetings discussing revisions, believes that the law should just be scrapped entirely.
“If we don’t have a good law, it’s better not to have one altogether,” he said. “The law ought to protect the workers, but we think that the draft produced by the government is for limiting the freedom of the trade unions. It is quite contrary.”
Chhay adding that if the right to protest and organize was threatened, this would generate an unfavorable image of Cambodia.
“The trade union law could cost Cambodia investments,” he said. “If the country continues violating these types of code of conduct [freedom of association], we might not get any tax concessions anymore [from the European Union].”
D’Amico disagreed and said, “I think Cambodia stands a lot to lose in terms of not pushing it through. Everybody is looking and waiting to see and I think not passing it will hurt Cambodia overall.”
The Ethical Trade Initiative and its member brands, which include Gap, Inditex and H&M, are keeping their eyes on the discussions.
A letter was sent to the Ministry of Labor in December to urge the government to respect the International Labor Organization’s conventions 87 and 98 concerning freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. ETI declined to reveal its contents, but H&M, one of Cambodia’s most prominent buyers, confirmed that it was a signatory to it and is demanding for the law to respect the spirit of the conventions.
“This includes the right to strike, that no intrusive requirements be placed on unions to report on their financing, nor restrictions be set on workers’ eligibility to hold union office,” said H&M press representative Therese Sundberg.