Controversial Union Law Set for Final Review

The head of the National Assembly’s legislation commission said he hoped to have a controversial draft union law passed “very soon” after the latest round of feedback from unions and employers during a public workshop at Parliament on Wednesday.

CPP parliamentarian Pen Panha said lawmakers will meet with the Labor Ministry today to review the feedback and consider final changes.

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, right, speaks with International Labor Organization coordinator Thun Sophorn at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, right, speaks with International Labor Organization coordinator Tun Sophorn at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In the works for the past eight years, the law would set new rules for forming, running and dissolving unions and has drawn strong rebuke from employee and employer groups who say the bill is either too tough on unions or not tough enough. If approved, it could have significant consequences for the country’s heavily unionized and strike-prone garment sector, one of Cambodia’s main economic drivers.

At Wednesday’s workshop, union representatives squared off against employers—and sometimes against each other—over several key provisions, including the proposed rules for forming and dissolving a union, reporting union finances and the threshold for a legal strike.

As the law is drafted, a legal strike would require support from just over half the people at a meeting where more than half the members of a union are present. Some unions say that’s too high, especially those with several thousand members.

Ath Thorn, president of the largest independent union in the country, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, argued for no threshold at all.

“That is a big concern,” he said of the proposed 50-percent-plus-one rule. “In the Constitution, even one person can make a strike or demonstration.”

The Constitution says the right to strike and demonstrate “shall be exercised within the framework of law.”

Some unions say the draft law would also make it far too easy for the courts to break them up. The draft says any union could be dissolved for the infractions of any one of its leaders. Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the same rules ought to apply to union leaders as lawmakers.

“If the offense is committed by one member, he can be removed by the National Assembly, but we should not dissolve the whole institution,” he said.

Some unions also object to a provision in the draft that would require them to hand over their financial details, worried the government will misuse the information to put undue pressure on those that oppose the government line.

But the head of the Cambodian Labor Union Federation, Som Aun, said law-abiding unions should have nothing to fear.

“It is a good point; if we are good people, we should not be worried,” he said. “If we are good, we have nothing to hide.”

Many of the union representatives also urged the government to form a long-overdue Labor Court to adjudicate disputes, hoping it will be more independent than the country’s highly corrupt regular courts. Some also asked that the law apply to informal workers, that the minimum age for taking on a leadership role in a union be dropped from 25 to 18, and that union leaders be barred from serving simultaneously as government or factory advisers, as some do now.

Unions said the proposed fines for various offenses, which could go up to 5 million riel (about $1,250) would be too steep for many union leaders to pay if they were earning garment factory wages.

Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s 500-odd exporting garment factories, said the penalties were not tough enough. Without criminal sanctions, he said, “the person can commit the crime again and again.”

The association is especially wary of a provision that would let only 10 people form a union, and wants the floor set at 20 percent of the employees at any worksite, “because when there are many members it gives value to the representative,” Mr. Monika said.

With thousands of unions to deal with already, he said, “there is a kind of anarchy; we don’t know who has the most representatives…so everyone claims they are the most representative and we don’t know who to have collective bargaining with.”

The association also wants the law to require a basic formal education of union leaders and allow the Labor Ministry to suspend unions accused of breaking the law, worried that waiting for the courts to sanction them will take too long.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), which has advised the government throughout the drafting process, says the bill falls short of Cambodia’s international convention obligations on several points. At the workshop, however, ILO labor law specialist Alain Pelce declined to comment on the latest version.

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said he was in favor of making some modest changes, including giving unions more time to provide their bank account number and lowering the number of unions needed to form a federation. But he held firm on letting 10 people form a union, requiring unions to get broad support from their members before going on strike and demanding their financial records.

In order to settle disputes, he said, “we have to have the [bank] account to guarantee justice, who is right and who will face the problem.”

Mr. Sam Heng and his staff will meet with opposition and ruling party lawmakers today to consider whether to make any last-minute changes to the law before the Assembly schedules a vote.

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