Draft Union Law Still Deeply Flawed: Report

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is “deeply concerned” about the latest draft of the Trade Union Law and vows to oppose it “vigorously” if approved as is, despite significant concessions the government has made to labor interests.

The most recent draft of the law, which would set new rules for creating and running a union, reached the National Assembly last month after being approved by the Council of Ministers and is the first full version to have reached the public since mid-2014.

Though the law would apply to most employers, its focus is the garment industry, which employs some 700,000 people, accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia’s exports and earned $5.8 billion in revenues last year. But relations between the sector’s employers and many unions have long been fraught.

“The International Trade Union Confederation…is deeply concerned with the content of the proposed [Trade Union] Law,” ITUC, which has combed through the new draft, says in a report obtained this week.

“While some of our previous concerns appear to have been addressed, we still have many serious concerns outstanding. These must be addressed before the bill is submitted to the parliament, or during the legislative process. Otherwise, the ITUC…will have no choice but to vigorously oppose it,” the report says.

Among ITUC’s global affiliates are three local union confederations representing some 170,000 workers.

In July, facing heavy criticism from labor rights groups over a previous draft of the law, the Labor Ministry abruptly dropped the threshold for forming a local union from 20 percent of the employees at an enterprise to just 10 people. It made a few other concessions, including lowering the threshold of the support a union would need to gain “most representative status,” which gives a union exclusive bargaining powers, from 50 percent of workers to 30 percent.

But ITUC says the new draft still falls short of International Labor Organization standards that the government has ratified.

The article setting conditions on who can take leadership posts inside a union, it says, ought to be scrapped altogether. It would bar anyone with a criminal record from taking on a leadership, management or administrative role. ITUC says they should only be barred for crimes that call into question their integrity, such as fraud and embezzlement.

“Preventing anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime under the Cambodian justice system from holding elected office opens the door for abuse, as employers and other authorities could easily levy charges on active or prospective union leader[s] for crimes of any nature, including those of a ‘political’ nature, as a means of preventing them from holding or seeking union office,” it says.

ITUC worries, too, that the section on unfair labor practices that could get unions in trouble has overly vague language about blocking factory gates and political agitation that could easily be misused.

“The ban on agitating for purely political purposes could be invoked to prohibit activity by unions to change government policy,” it says. “Indeed, the government and employers have done exactly this in the past.”

It says fines for breaking the law that go up to $1,250 could prove “crushing” for a small union, but could easily be absorbed as the cost of doing business by employers. And in the absence of a labor court, which the government has been obliged to create since 1997, it suggests that disputes under the Trade Union Law head to the Arbitration Council—“the only independent and effective judicial tribunal in Cambodia”—rather than regular courts.

ITUC also suggests that the rules for dissolving a union ought to be left to each union’s constitution and bylaws, rather than letting a majority of members take it to court, and that a union should not be punished for the infractions of individual leaders.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said on Thursday that his organization had yet to see the new draft.

Last month, he said GMAC’s two main concerns remained the inability of government ministries to take any punitive measures against misbehaving unions without prior court approval, a process that could take too long, and the low threshold of employees needed to form a union.

One of the association’s main complaints with garment industry unions is that there are simply too many of them to have effective bargaining, and that allowing only 10 people to form a union would only make the problem worse.

The National Assembly’s CPP-dominated legislative commission will host a workshop on the draft on Tuesday. Ke Sovannaroth, an opposition lawmaker who heads the Assembly’s labor commission, said the CNRP had yet to decide whether it would participate amid the latest breakdown in political relations between the two parties.

Like ITUC, she objected to many of the provisions in the new draft, including the use of the existing courts.

“Article 98 talks about the court system and says the government will establish a labor court. But it will continue using the existing courts if the labor court is not yet established,” she said.

“As we all know, the existing courts have been used to restrict employees, garment workers and trade unions from exercising their freedom of expression.”

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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