A group of 30 international garment brands on Friday wrote to Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon to express their concern over the government’s draft union law, which could allow for the arbitrary suspension or disbanding of unions.
The letter, which was signed by brand names such as H&M, Gap, Adidas and Nike as well as the IndustriALL Global Union, Uni Global Union and the International Trade Union Confederation, follows after talks between the clothing buyers and senior government officials in Phnom Penh on February 19 to address instability in the garment sector after the lethal suppression of strikes in January.
In their letter on Friday, the clothing brands cite reports that unions have been prevented from registering at the Ministry of Labor, and that the government will not recognize any new unions until it has passed its new union law, which places new restrictions on labor groups.
“The passage of the Trade Union Law [must be] consistent with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 to establish effective industrial relations,” the letter states, adding that the brands hope the drafting of the law is also an “inclusive process.”
Earlier this week, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng made assurances that the law would comply with the ILO’s Convention 87, which pertains to freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and which Cambodian ratified in 1999.
However, the minister added the caveat, “in the context of Cambodia,” when referring to the convention. He also did not mention the ILO’s Convention 98, which is related to the right to organize and collective bargaining.
“In this context, we are very concerned with recent reports that no new union registrations have been issued in 2014 and that there will be no new registrations before the advent of the new law,” the brands added. “We find that this step is not in keeping with the process that we understood from the meeting, and does not seem to us to move the process forward in a constructive manner.”
The brands also called for discussions to be inclusive on the issue of raising the current $100 monthly minimum wage, and that they are concerned that lawsuits by factory owners against trade unions, for the alleged damage to public property in January, might stoke tensions further.
Accompanying the letter, which was also addressed to Mr. Sam Heng, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol, were statements provided by representatives from the three international unions.
“Freedom of association is under serious attack in Cambodia right now,” said Sharan Burrow, general-secretary of the ITUC.
“We all want to see a sustainable garment industry, and the government and employers need to respect freedom of association. Unions in Cambodia and around the world will campaign to ensure that Cambodian workers can exercise this basic right.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the union law will serve workers and employers, and depicted unions as rogue elements.
“I expect this law would favor the interest of the worker as well as the interests of the employer,” he said.
“We wish to see the workers as assets of the employers. If you see a union, so far they are free to conduct what they want, even though they abuse the law, they are still ok. If [the brands] are concerned, we respect that,” he added.