Cambodia for the first time won a seat on the powerful governing body of the International Labor Organization (ILO) last week despite frequent—and, recently, deadly—labor unrest and complaints of abuse in the country’s all-important garment manufacturing industry.
The country secured a majority of votes from ILO members at their annual International Labor Conference in Geneva for one of 18 rotating seats open to governments and up for grabs every three years. The 56-seat governing body decides on ILO policy, votes on the ILO director-general, sets the agenda for the annual conference, and approves the draft program and budget for the ILO before they reach the conference.
After arriving back from Geneva on Monday, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng called the win a great honor for Cambodia and just recognition for its hard work on the labor rights front.
“Countries around the world recognized that Cambodia has the best working conditions in the world with freedom, vocational training, the right to strike and protest and express the views of workers and for negotiation,” he told reporters at the Phnom Penh International Airport.
“These points gave us support from most of the countries of the world who voted to support us. It is good news for our country, workers and employers.”
But the minister’s views stand in stark contrast to those of some international rights groups and local independent unions.
It was only last month that the International Trade Union Confederation named Cambodia among the countries with the worst working conditions in the world in its annual ranking, owing to a lack of labor rights and abusive employer practices.
At a workshop in Phnom Penh last month, the ILO itself said the Labor Ministry’s latest draft of a proposed trade union law was worse than the last and fell well short of ILO conventions the country has ratified.
In January, military police put down a protest for higher garment sector wages by opening fire on the crowd, killing at least five people and injuring dozens. While no police or government officials have been held accountable, 23 unionists and workers who were rounded up in connection with the incident were recently convicted and handed suspended sentences after flawed trials widely seen as politically motivated.
The day after the fatal shootings, the Ministry of Interior also imposed a ban on demonstrations that remains in effect.
ILO national coordinator Tun Sophorn defended Cambodia’s new position on the governing body.
“Cambodia has the issues, but the other countries as well…it’s not just Cambodia,” he said.
“I think Cambodia most recently has had progress,” he added, citing the court’s decision to release the 23 men, drafting of the union law, and the government’s work with garment industry unions and employers to come up with a new way of setting the sector’s minimum wage.
Independent union leader Ath Thorn said Cambodia likely won a good deal of support among ILO members by playing up the many ILO conventions it has signed, adding that its new role on the governing body may push the government to do a better job of actually implementing them.
Pav Sina, however, another union leader, said Cambodia was not ready for the seat and worried the government could use it against the unions.
“Our workers and unions have many issues that have not been solved yet, including the arrest and killing of workers, threats against unions, and the firing of workers,” he said.
“When it becomes a member [of the governing body], it will make it easy for [the Cambodian government] to put pressure on the ILO to implement what it wants.”