Members of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia are making education efforts and individual factories are filing an increasing number of lawsuits to dissuade unions from staging unlawful strikes, manufacturing officials say.
Management is concerned that union leaders with personal motivations may be portraying a negative image to prospective international investors, GMAC President Van Sou Ieng said earlier this month.
Workers maintain that the number of strikes is decreasing, as unions look for other methods of arbitration.
“Unions have been handed a tremendous amount of power that they do not know how to use appropriately or effectively,” Van Sou Ieng said.
When unions realize they have the right to organize and demand good working conditions, suddenly “lines blur and workers organize to protect internal thieves and other workers seeking to take advantage of the factories and the system of rights protection,” he said.
Van Sou Ieng said the manufacturers association is looking to tackle the problem with a new public relations campaign and is considering making radio scripts and television spots to educate “workers about their right to work.”
The Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia said Van Sou Ieng’s comments are unwarranted, and that the number of strikes in the past two years has declined.
The Free Trade Union issued an eight-page policy statement in August that said the number of strikes would be reduced “by instituting grievance procedures and collective bargaining agreements in factories.”
The Free Trade Union’s international liaison, George McLeod, said Tuesday that “the number of strikes at factories has decreased dramatically.”
An Nan, legal adviser to the Cambodian Labor Organization said that unions are being more responsible, but factories still are giving unions reason to speak out.
“Factories don’t want to have unions because they make it difficult for factories to make more profit because they stand for their rights,” An Nan said. He said workers use strikes as a last resort, since missed work days means less money.
But factory managers fear that Free Trade Union efforts are not representative of the entire industry and that union members still are misusing their power.
The dismissal of three union workers at the Splendid Chance factory in Russei Keo district incited what Splendid Chance’s lawyer David Chanaiwa calls an “illegal strike” on Jan 22 involving close to 400 of the factory’s 546 workers. A strike is illegal when workers don’t first follow the labor law to reconcile their problems with management.
The four-day strike resulted in the stoning of administrator Mao Kolyan on Jan 24 and the harassment and intimidation of workers seeking to enter the factory, said Chanaiwa.
An Nan said members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Union admitted that “stones were thrown” but said it was unfair to place the blame on union members.
Strikes that are brought by leaders who have personal motivations weaken the credibility of Cambodian unions and threaten to tarnish the country’s image and ultimately sacrifice non-striking workers’ right to work, Van Sou Ieng said.
Jason Judd, country representative of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said GMAC has a long history of accusing unions of unlawful strikes but that “nine out of 10 occasions [unions] are not striking about nothing. Their bosses are breaking the law.”
He said that activist unions, like the Free Trade Union and the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers, are more disciplined now than they were two years ago, making efforts to collectively bargain instead of to strike.
Some factory managers are taking matters into their own hands to change the system, holding unions and union federations accountable for profits lost during strikes and for making unsubstantiated claims of abuse.
For example, the management at the New Orient (Cambodia) Garment Co has filed charges against six union members for inciting a five-day strike on Nov 15 to pressure the factory to rehire them after they were fired for unsatisfactory job performances, said Chanaiwa, who also represents New Orient. The factory is demanding that each union member pay $4,000 worth of compensation for profits lost during the strike.
Cambodian Apparel Workers President Chhorn Sokha defended the workers, issuing a letter to all relevant ministries in January saying that the factory’s conditions were what incited the strike.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)