Ex-Officials Tell of Free Trade Union’s Demise

Chea Mony shuffled papers on his desk and joked about the headshot of Bun Rany hanging alone on the wall of his office at the Free Trade Union headquarters in Phnom Penh. The prime minister’s wife is the most powerful person in the country, he said.

“I put this photo of Bun Rany here because she is the person that should be respected and has a lot of power,” he said. “If she wants to fight, then she can fight.”

But when the humor subsided, it became apparent that the leader of what was once the country’s biggest union was remarkably well prepared for the accusations about to be leveled against him.

In interviews over the past two months, people on the front line of the fight for workers’ rights described how the union created by slain activist Chea Vichea, Mr. Mony’s brother, has devolved from a disciplined organization leading the country’s labor movement into a corrupt network of factory owners filling the pockets of Mr. Mony and his associates.

Yaing Sophorn, Pav Sina and Far Saly cut their teeth as unionists under Chea Vichea in the late ’90s, rising from factory staff to become senior FTU officials before breaking rank and giving birth to three of the unions that are now leading the charge for a $177 minimum wage.

Each of them now competes directly with Mr. Mony for a share of the estimated 600,000 workers, mostly young women, who toil in the country’s garment factories.

Starting the Movement

In 1998, as the garment industry was becoming the nation’s No. 1 employer, Chea Vichea detached from Sam Rainsy’s Khmer Nation Party to run the Free Trade Union (FTU) independently. The pair launched the union together in 1996.

At that time, Ms. Sophorn was just learning about strikes, rights and protests as a worker on the factory floor, Mr. Saly was building a reputation for uniting workers at a knitting factory in Phnom Penh and Mr. Sina was spending every spare minute alongside the man that all three regard as their mentor.

“From Monday to Friday, after working in the factory near Boeng Tompun, I would go to the Free Trade Union offices near Independence Monument and follow Chea Vichea,” Mr. Sina said last month in an interview at his office just off Veng Sreng Street.

“Chea Vichea was a teacher. He wanted everyone to be as good as him.”

Through the FTU, Chea Vichea entered an industry built on exploitative labor and set about giving the mostly uneducated workforce a voice. He earned a reputation for instigating wildcat strikes and secured the industry’s first minimum wage.

But along with his growing band of followers, Chea Vichea was also making many enemies.

As the country reeled in the grips of a political deadlock following the 2003 election, politicians, monks, journalists, entertainers and a judge aligned with the political opposition were targeted in a wave of assassinations.

On January 22, 2004, six months into the deadlock, a gunman put three bullets in Chea Vichea as he read a newspaper outside Wat Langka. Tens of thousands marched for his funeral. Many observers pronounced the labor movement dead.

New Regime

Six months after the murder of Chea Vichea, FTU members overwhelmingly elected Mr. Mony to replace his older brother, becoming the leader of a union that represented some 80,000 workers at its height.

“I will continue my brother’s struggle,” Mr. Mony said after his victory was announced.

The former FTU organizers interviewed for this story say Mr. Mony began with the best intentions.

“After Chea Vichea died, from 2005 to 2007 the FTU was great. Chea Mony did just like his brother,” Mr. Sina said.

But in 2008 something changed, according to Mr. Sina, who had risen to the rank of “official” in the union, the level below secretary-general.

The FTU leadership—Mr. Mony and senior officials Mann Seng Hak and Som Srey Mom—went underground for a short period and emerged with a new mandate, one that no longer centered on industrial action, according to Mr. Sina.

“Those three stopped working for about half a month—they just suspended operations and we were not told why,” Mr. Sina said.

“After that, they never involved any other staff in the meetings and activities of the union, just the three of them.”

By that time, Ms. Sophorn was working in the union’s financial department.

In an interview on the sidelines of a minimum wage discussion at a Phnom Penh hotel in August, Ms. Sophorn spoke of how factory managers paid monthly installments to Mr. Mony’s FTU in exchange for no strikes or unrest at their factory.

“The factories would give the FTU money to stop criticizing,” Ms. Sophorn said.

Ms. Sophorn said that she herself was responsible for collecting money from management at a number of factories where the

FTU was supposed to be acting for the workers.

“They pay six months at a time or three months at a time,” she said. “Usually they paid $300 to $500 per month, depending on the situation at the factory.”

“After they paid, if the FTU staff attempted to help the workers, the [factory] managers would decrease the next payment or withdraw payment altogether.”

Ms. Sophorn said that she was responsible for collecting money from “seven or eight factories” but that she believed such activities were taking place on a far greater scale.

Now the head of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, Ms. Sophorn said that her monthly salary of $200 with the FTU was topped up by “$400 to $500 extra from the president.”

Stifled

For Mr. Saly and Mr. Sina, who met at the Century Rich factory in Phnom Penh, where they knitted shirts, the FTU’s new, docile tactics were the beginning of the end.

While they had built their reputations on vigorous lobbying inside factories, suddenly they were told that all complaints lodged with factories had to go through the FTU hierarchy.

“For example, one time, I took a call from a factory worker who asked for help in a dispute,” Mr. Sina said. “I went to the factory but the higher officials called me back and scolded me, asking me why I went there.”

“They told us that we should not directly help the workers when there is a dispute,” he said. “I had no authority to question the top leaders, so I just did my business alone.”

Mr. Saly, who had also risen to the rank of official, said that his aggressive style of settling conflicts also disrupted the relationships that the FTU leadership had established with factory management.

“Everyone at the FTU became obsessed with money,” he said during a July interview at a sugar-cane stand just a block from where Chea Vichea was murdered.

“It was just one group that cooperates together—only the secretariat and the president—and they did not want other people to interfere,” he said.

However, Mr. Saly, who now fronts the National Trade Union Coalition, said that he continued to operate the way Chea Vichea had taught him, wrangling his bosses.

“Some of us had a lot of ability to do this job but Chea Mony did not want to see what we could do—he said I was going beyond my duty, that solving problems for workers was creating more problems for him,” he said.

“I am not a quiet man and the other secretariats did not like me interfering in their business.”

Exodus

In May 2010, about six weeks ahead of the FTU presidential election, Mr. Mony announced that he would retire from the post he had held for six years.

As internal strife eroded the FTU’s credibility, the union’s membership dwindled from some 80,000 to just 24,000.

“I don’t want to be the Free Trade Union president candidate because of my health problems and a large workload,” Mr. Mony told a reporter ahead of the June 27 vote.

Mr. Mony put forward Rong Chhun, a good friend of Chea Vichea and longtime labor leader, as his successor. Mr. Chhun, then president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, accepted his nomination.

“If Chea Mony resigns…I will help the unions. I will continue former Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea’s legacy,” Mr. Chhun told a reporter at the time.

Contacted yesterday, Mr. Chhun said he never actually wanted to stand as president and declined to discuss events surrounding the election. But he did have something to say about the current state of the FTU.

“Today, compared with before, the FTU has seen a massive decline and there has been a loss of Chea Vichea’s honor both in Cambodia and around the world,” he said. “Everything that Chea Vichea built has been lost.”

As Mr. Mony was preparing to step down, internal troubles continued to fester in his union.

Mr. Sina said that the board was having “secret meetings,” where he believed they were plotting to terminate Ou Sophat and Mr. Saly, among the union’s more militant organizers.

“In April, I met with the top leaders to ask if they were going to fire Far Saly,” Mr. Sina said. “I told them that if they fire him, I will leave too.”

A month later, Mr. Saly was fired, evidenced by a document provided by Mr. Mony, which states that Mr. Saly had “no will to give benefits to the garment workers of the Free Trade Union.”

The document also notes the resignations of Mr. Sina, Mr. Sophat and Tuy Vang. Khat Nout, now an assistant to Mr. Sina at the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, also resigned.

“Chea Mony told me to leave the FTU and took my salary away,” Mr. Saly said. “He gave me no reason. But before I left, there were many secret meetings where I believe they planned to fire me.”

Mr. Mony then did an about face and decided to run in the FTU’s presidential election after all, saying that local members had lobbied him to stay on as the union’s leader.

On June 27, he won the election by default. His was the only name on the ballot.

Transparency

Critics of Mr. Mony point to the shiny black Range Rover that he drives, the villa that he lives in and ask, how?

Critics also note his habit of abandoning mass strikes and demonstrations, such as May Day this year, when he withdrew the FTU, saying the union was not prepared to take part because he had been “sick and traveling to some provinces.”

Speaking at his office last month, Mr. Mony said that the decision to fire Mr. Saly was made by the FTU board, and declined to discuss it further.

When asked about the departure of Mr. Sina and Mr. Sopath, he produce their resignation letters from his desk drawer and said that it was their own decision. He said he had wished them well, but added “factories hate Pav Sina because he takes money under the table all the time.”

Responding to Ms. Sophorn’s accusations, he said she was simply tasked with collecting members’ dues of 1,000 riel per head. Any other money she was collecting was “her own corruption,” he said.

When his relationships with factory managers were questioned, he began to take spent bullet casings from a tray on his desk and line them up one by one, explaining that his was the most honorable of unions.

“Currently, 80 to 90 percent of unions in Cambodia are corrupt because the officials don’t solve problems, they just take money from the factory,” he said. “Factories hate me more than a robbery.”

Mr. Mony used the bullet casings to enforce the point that he has many enemies, using the murders of his brother and fellow FTU leaders Ros Sovannaroth and Hy Vuthy as examples.

“In 2004, we lost two. In 2007, we lost another one,” he said. “No other union has as many people killed, threatened or arrested.”

Mr. Mony explained that there are three types of unions in Cambodia: those whose mandate is to make money, those created to support the government, and independent unions working toward one goal—full respect of workers’ rights.

“We have been successful in maintaining workers rights. We work for the worker to demand what they need. We stand in the middle, with the Labor Law, and are not partial to any worker or factory,” he said, standing up and gesturing to drive home his point.

Then, when the giant black Range Rover arrived at his office—driven by a chauffeur,—the obvious question of how a union leader can afford a $60,000 vehicle arose.

Mr. Mony said that he did not even take a wage from the FTU and explained that his wife was a highly successful businesswoman.

He also gave an insight to his own side project, which allows him to make connections with factory bosses long before they begin operations and employ a workforce.

“I have money to make my life better because I act as a broker for businesspeople from China and Taiwan who ask me to find land so they can build a factory,” he said.

[email protected]; [email protected]

© 2014, All rights reserved.