PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Despite its robust garment industry, massive gaps of knowledge and understanding of industrial relations still plague this southeast Asia country, government and International Labour Organization officials said Tuesday.
Gathering for a discussion on Cambodia’s often-contentious relationship between the government, employers and workers, panelists at the conference touched on topics spanning from the role independent unions have in maintaining a stable garment sector to how a planned labor court would function in relation to an already existing Arbitration Council — which awards non-binding resolutions to disputes within all industrial sectors.
Cambodia’s two-decades-long establishment of a manufacturing sector may be far from fledging but it is still classified as a country of high strike risk, with employers often discriminating against union members in their factories and workers resorting to wildcat strikes to get their demands met. According to speaker Sok Lor, who used to head the Arbitration Council, 118 strikes occurred last year, hampering the $6.2 billion industry with 450,000 lost man-days.
Even the government is aware of its shortcomings. “You may ask me who makes the most mistakes? I say all of the parties do, including the employers, the unions and the governments — we all have gaps,” said Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor.
He added that collective bargaining agreements established in factories “lacked quality,” though he was encouraged that the number of agreements jumped from 45 to 500 in the last year.
Veyara Chhieu, national coordinator for ILO’s program on improving industrial relations, stressed that the rampant discrimination against unions by employers can be detrimental to any sort of industrial stability. He added that a law concerning the establishment of a labor court should include legislation making the Arbitration Council’s decisions legally binding.
“Some disputes can be solved at the Arbitration Council level, so from our experience and our maturity, I don’t believe that the later established labor court would be more effective than the Arbitration Council,” Chhieu said.
Dispute resolution should begin at prevention, said William Conklin, head of Solidarity Center, a labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
“It’s important to talk dispute resolution in the same breath as dispute prevention because this is where collective bargaining agreements can come in,” Conklin said, adding that unions need to be more transparent and strategic in how they approach industrial relations. “They need to merge — they don’t need to split — to prove that unity is the underlying factor of a trade union.”
Cambodia’s union movement has been marred with in-fighting between groups perceived as independent and groups aligned with the government or with factory owners. This often sets back progress when it comes to discussions about touchy subjects, such as the annual minimum wage negotiations.
Even during the conference, leaders from opposing unions took the floor during the Q&A session to slam each others’ role in the Cambodian industry. Meanwhile, Heng Sour, the Ministry of Labor spokesman, lambasted Chhieu for holding the view that some unions act against the interests of workers because they are not independent.
Despite such a display during a conference on maturing industrial relations, Men Nimmith, executive director of the Arbitration Council Foundation, believes that Cambodia has come a long way since the “breakdown of law” during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Even though education has improved, it is still very much far away from the level of strengthening the implementation of law,” he said, explaining that the lack of education has contributed to the rocky relations.
“But I think we are still better than Bangladesh,” Nimmith said.