Human rights officials and labor activists say a recent declaration by the Ministry of Labor that workers do not have the right to protest in public is wrong and should be rescinded.
The Ministry of Labor, in a circular released last week, said that while workers have the right to strike, they must not stage public protests. Labor officials and business leaders believe public protests may discourage foreign investment in Cambodia.
One human rights officer said Tuesday that the ministry is simply wrong in its interpretation of the law. “Workers have the right to demonstrate and to strike,’’ he said. “You can’t separate the two.’’
He said human rights activists and labor organizations will be working to convince the ministry its interpretation is wrong.
The ministry’s announcement came in response to a series of protests of poor working conditions last month by mostly female garment workers, some of whom were beaten by police.
Monday, the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia said in a statement that the government’s position “seems to encourage the employers and policemen to bravely commit violence on women workers who are weak.’’
The workers say that if they don’t march in public, employers simply ignore their complaints.
The ministry’s reasoning in attempting to ban public protests is flawed, the statement said, and cannot be expected to “help develop and stabilize the society.’’
A labor ministry official who insisted on anonymity said the government is right, and warns workers they may be jailed if they break the law.
He said officials have not yet received the union statement spelling out exactly why it believes the government’s reasoning is flawed. He said ministry officials could not respond more specifically until they do.
“The Minister of Social Affairs and Labor will examine this request if we receive it,’’ he said. “We have never ignored or refused any ideas even if it is made by one worker.’’
Another labor union, the Cambodia Worker Trade Federation, has also urged garment manufacturers to respect workers’ rights.
“Employers must not commit violence or bear rancor or change [a] worker’s position when they demand justice to protect their rights,’’ the statement said.
The issue is likely to grow in importance. According to the Ministry of Commerce, labor disputes and demonstrations tripled between 1998 and 1999 and the number of factories rose from 20 in 1995 to 186 in 1999.
The garment industry, which employs 90,000, is the dominant industry in Cambodia, generating 90 percent of the country’s exports worth $640 million a year.