Prime Minister Hun Sen told business leaders and government officials Tuesday that he will not tolerate “illegal” labor strikes that harm investment, but avoided judgment on a request to withdraw ratification of a U.N. convention protecting workers’ rights to unionize.
Speaking at the 17th Government-Private Sector Forum, Mr. Hun Sen also referred to the opposition CNRP as an “extremist group” that had stirred unrest by enticing garment workers to take part in illegal activities during a nationwide strike two months ago.
“The opposition party and its unions have used a subversive policy that takes the workers to be a political [tool], and have instigated the staging of illegal strikes, especially to demand an extreme minimum wage, with the intention of destroying the investment climate, workers benefits, and job opportunities for the youth,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“The government would like to reaffirm that the implementation of the freedom to make demands [unionize] must be done legally,” he said.
“If it is done against the law, there will be no tolerance.”
Five garment strike protesters were shot dead and more than 40 wounded by military police at the beginning of January. The military police violence, and the ruling party’s suspension of the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, crushed the nationwide strike and parallel opposition party protests demanding a re-election.
Mr. Hun Sen decreed last week that his ban on public gatherings had been rescinded, though district security in Phnom Penh still broke up a peaceful protest on Monday and forcefully confiscated a ceremonial drum.
Tuesday’s business forum, which was described by Mr. Hun Sen as an expanded meeting of the Council of Ministers, opened with the heads of the 10 working groups of the Government-Private Sector Forum delivering reports and making requests of the prime minister.
Nang Sothy, who heads the group on industrial relations, and is also vice chairman of the government’s Labor Advisory Committee, used his report to Mr. Hun Sen to express concern about strikes in the garment industry.
Mr. Sothy then asked Mr. Hun Sen to reconsider Cambodia’s status as a signatory to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87, which guarantees workers rights to create, join and participate in unions.
The ILO convention was ratified by Cambodia in August 1999.
“Convention 87 is not recognized by all of the countries in the world. Some neighboring countries can operate their factories’ clothing and footwear production without the ILO’s monitoring,” Mr. Sothy said.
“The private sector would like to request Samdech Techo that the government should reconsider the continuation of being a signatory country of [ILO] Convention 87 in order to determine whether it is useful.”
Mr. Hun Sen did not directly respond to the request.
Other working group leaders also made suggestions to the prime minister, including new incentives for milling rice inside the country for export, and for measures to help companies comply with the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires U.S. citizens to report their financial accounts outside the U.S. to the Internal Revenue Service.
After the presentation of requests, Mr. Hun Sen chose 13 which he announced he would see implemented in the next month, including tax holidays for companies milling rice, unidentified incentives for companies importing materials used to make luggage, and the creation of new immigration counters at various checkpoints.
“In regard to further requests, we require further discussions within the working groups and the government,” he said, without mention of the request to withdraw workers’ rights to join unions.
Mr. Hun Sen, who had apologized for being unwell throughout the morning meeting, asked for a moment to recover from a bout of coughing before explaining that he had been awake all night with a bad fever.
“It seems that I am not well…but other people, don’t hope that I will die,” he joked.