If Cambodian labor union leaders still wonder if they are making progress, they should look around the table later this week when the National Labor Advisory Committee meets to discuss child labor.
They will see a new player: the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, a kind of union for management formed to balance labor’s growing clout.
“All employers and business associations are welcome to join the new federation,” said Van Sou Ieng, the president of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, who has been elected to lead federation.
The federation, which registered with the Ministry of Labor in late August, consists of six business associations and several individual business owners, representing more than 600 employers.
As workers grow more vocal and united, Van Sou Ieng said, employers have recognized that they need to unite to address issues in a single voice. The International Labor Organization has also recommended that such an organization be formed, Van Sou Ieng said. Thursday’s meeting of the 20-member Labor Advisory Committee will be the first for the federation.
The committee, composed of 10 government officials, five workers’ representatives, and five employers’ representatives, was a largely inactive body that began meeting seriously last year when garment workers began agitating for a raise in the minimum wage.
A $5-per-month increase, approved in August, was one of the most visible achievements posted by Cambodia’s fledgling labor movement.
According to figures provided by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Labor and Veteran’s Affairs, labor disputes and strikes are rising. Collective labor disputes and demonstrations nearly quadrupled between 1998 and 1999, rising from 33 cases to 120.
Although figures for 2000 have not yet been released, labor officials say still more workers formed units in factories to protect workers’ rights and organized more strikes to protest employers’ violations of the labor code.
Camfeba members say that with the formation of the new group, they will have enough clouts to get their point of view heard as the government draws up regulations and formulates policy.
“Many business owners are coming here from overseas,” said Yum Sui Sang, council member and president of the China Hong Kong and Macao Business Association of Cambodia. “We want a harmony among employers by understanding common issues. The federation is a good development to support employers.”
Henry Kong, the federation’s treasurer and president of the 16-member Cambodia Timber Industry Association, said the federation could promote better industrial relations.
For example, he said, the timber industry now lacks skilled workers. The federation could lobby the government on the need for new vocational training, or provide feedback on how new government regulations would affect employment standards here.
Businesses here are also often critical of the government for making and changing its policies in secret.
For example, the open-skies policy meant to encourage more direct international flights to Siem Reap is being hampered by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent decision to limit the Bangkok-Siem Reap direct flights to only two airlines—a decision that has not been announced publicly.
Van Sou Ieng said last week that such shifts and changes in government policy and regulations chase private investors out of Cambodia.
“The [government] internal structure is still problematic,” he said, adding that the lack of legal structure and transparency discourages and confuses investors.
He said that although the business federation primarily focuses on labor issues, it would also lobby the government to develop a better investment climate.
Huot Chanty, acting director of the Ministry of Labor’s inspection department, said the labor code guarantees equal rights of association for both employers and workers. Workers already have five trade union federations.
Unions see the employers’ federation as a challenge for them, because union federations are not well united and are often disrupted by political conflicts among themselves.
“When employers get united, they become much stronger to defend themselves for their benefits,” said Chuon Mum Thal, president of the Cambodia Union Federation which controls nearly 100 unions with 43,000 workers. “Trade union federations should be united and work together.”
The new business federation is scheduled to meet with International Labor Organization representatives on Thursday, probably after the Labor Advisory Committee meeting, to seek technical assistance in order to strengthen the organization.
“Camfeba appears to be the foremost employer organization in Cambodia,” said Franklyn Amerasinghe, the Bangkok-based ILO senior employer specialist who will meet with the federation.
“The visit will enable the Employers Bureau of the ILO to find out how it could help Camfeba to play an active role in national issues,” he said.