Garment Workers Ask US Union for Help With Grievances

Workers at Goldfame Enter­prises International Knitters Ltd have filed complaints with the Ministry of Labor, charging that company officials are illegally blocking their attempts to organize a union.

On Thursday, they asked their union brothers in the US for help, sending a fax to the AFL-CIO affiliate UNITE, formerly known as the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

“We ask the UNITE leaders to…complain to the companies The Limited/Structure and Mer­vyn’s…which order garments from Goldfame,” the fax stated. “Man­agers and top administrators force us to work over­time…exploit our labor, intimidate workers who join the union and discriminate” against union members.

That tactic might resonate with US buyers, who in the past have been quick to cut ties with factories accused of labor law violations. Retail giants Gap and Nike cancelled contracts in 2000 after allegations of child labor in Cam­bodian factories.

Goldfame officials Thursday denied doing anything to interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, and said the recent complaints are the first they knew of any problems.

“We have no objections to un­ions,” said Sam Yu, general manager of Goldfame and its related facility, Pak Shun Knitting Fac­tory Ltd. “We just want our workers to obey the labor law and the factory regulations.”

He conceded that an appeal to US labor unions or complaints to buyers could cause difficulties for his companies, which employ more than 6,000 workers.

But he noted that “the global business environment is very weak, and union workers should realize that a closed factory is not a good thing.

“Do they really want to see 7,000 jobs lost?” Sam Yu said.

Labor advocates in Cambodia say union-busting remains one of the garment industry’s biggest prob­lems. They say that while most factories obey the law, others know the Ministry of Labor has neither the money to enforce it nor, in some cases, the political will. No ministry official contacted would comment on the complaints lodged against Goldfame.

“This is an important issue,” said Lejo Sibbel of the Inter­national Labor Organization’s monitoring unit. “If workers can’t organize or speak for themselves, problems may exist and they will have no way of bringing them to anyone’s attention.

“Our experience is that in the factories we have visited, [anti-union activities] have been a problem in 20 to 30 percent of them,” Lejo Sibbel said.

According to one Western dip­lomat, the situation at Gold­fame “has been going on for a while. This is one of a number that bother us.”

Workers describe a pattern of anti-union activities by the company, from supervisors warning workers to stop organizing efforts to local village chiefs telling landlords not to rent to activists.

Factory officials say they cannot tell village officials or landlords what to do.

One worker says he was fired for his activism and the jobs of his four sisters were threatened. Neum Nak, 23, says he worked in the pressing department without problems from 1997 until he attended a training session for union organizers in December.

He says he was called in, questioned about the session, and asked who else had attended. He said he was fired after he refused to name the others. When he filed a complaint at the Ministry of Labor, his supervisor told his mother the company would fire his sisters if the complaint wasn’t withdrawn.

Goldfame officials say Neum Nak  never was asked to provide in­formation about the union meeting and was not fired but resigned. They cited as proof payroll records showing he never picked up his last paycheck.

“If he had been fired, he would have been given the money on the spot,” Yu said.

Two employees who still work in Goldfame’s pressing department say company supervisors and others have told them to stop the union activity if they know what is good for them.

Chheuy Sina, 25, said his su­pervisor told him to “get out” of the union. Mao Kuoen, 22, said two men who did not work at the fac­tory told him on Feb 24 if he didn’t quit the union, “I’d be in trouble.”

Instead of filing complaints, Yu said, it would be better “if we could sit down together and talk about it, because we don’t want a small problem to injure the reputation of Cambodia.”

 

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