PHNOM PENH — New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday criticizing a draft law that seeks to regulate the country’s trade unions as a violation of human rights and freedom of association.
Known as the trade union law, it has undergone many iterations over the years, but the latest version has not been released for public consultation. With more than 600,000 workers in Cambodia’s robust garment industry, independent unions are worried that the new law, if passed, would place undue restrictions on their activities, making it difficult for them to negotiate and rally over workers’ complaints of low minimum wage, union discrimination, and factory compliance violations. Government officials have said in the past that the law will serve the interests of the workers.
“The government’s lack of transparency in making the draft law public and subject to scrutiny and consultation is contrary to principles of democratic governance and jeopardizes public trust in the law-making process,” HRW said in its letter to the prime minister.
HRW believes that the latest version of the law will violate international labor laws that were ratified and “severely damage Cambodia’s reputation as garment-producing country where rights matter.”
Problematic provisions in the proposed law, said HRW, include a minimum requirement of a quarter of a factory’s workers to be members before a union can be registered, as well as a vague criteria set by the Ministry of Labor to suspend a union if it engages in activities that are “damaging to the interests” of Cambodia.
“Adopting a bad trade union law is not just bad for workers, it’s bad for Cambodia’s global image and jeopardizes the country’s economic lifeline — the garment industry,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director said. “A dubious trade union law may make global brands think twice about investing or keeping their operations in Cambodia.”
In March last year, a group of 30 international clothing brands, including Adidas, Hennes & Mauritz and Gap Inc., sent a letter to the government expressing concern over the proposed trade union law. The law should be consistent with the International Labor Organization’s conventions on freedom of association and the protection of the right to organize, the letter said.
Nang Sothy, who represents the country’s employers in the Labor Advisory Council – a panel made up of unions, government and employers that discusses pivotal labor laws – said he has not received any version of the draft law, but is not worried about how it might affect his contingent.
“It’s not a problem to us because we are the employers. The law is the law, and it will protect us, and it will protect the unions,” he said.
However, Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said that tightening controls over unions could make it tougher for independent organizations to operate. Workers belonging to independent associations already face frequent harassment and discriminatory treatment by factory supervisors, and a minimum requirement on membership for unions to function could make matters worse, he said.
“What if the employer chooses to fire 10 percent of the union?” Ath Thon said. “How can workers dare to organize if they only get $128 a month and they are afraid that they might face retribution from the owners? And so, how can the rights of the workers be guaranteed?”