Government Urged to Ease Pressure on Unions

Visiting representatives from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on Monday urged the Labor Ministry to withdraw its threat to revoke the licenses of six unions behind recent strikes, and to drop legal proceedings against union leader Rong Chhun.

ITUC deputy general-secretary Jaap Wienen, whose Belgium-based group works with unions around the world including Mr. Chhun’s Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he delivered the “advice” at a private meeting with Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Monday morning.

His visit follows garment worker protests that peaked on January 3 when military police opened fire on demonstrators outside a Phnom Penh factory, killing five and wounding dozens. About 100 factories have since sued the six unions for allegedly inciting the violence, and Mr. Chhun is scheduled for questioning today.

“We came here with a delegation because we are very concerned about the situation in Cambodia, about the killings, the arrest of people and the fact that negotiations are not taking place at the moment, that they are blocked,” Mr. Wienen told reporters.

Several local and international rights groups have condemned both the police response toward the protesters and the arrests of the 23 men during the clashes.

At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Wienen said he also advised the minister to expedite a government study into how garment worker and civil servant wages might be raised within no more than 60 days. On Friday Prime Minister Hun Sen put Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon in charge of a new committee to carry out the study.

“That sounds nice, but it has no value if this committee will take months and months to study, because today people have expectations,” Mr. Wienen said.

The six unions behind the recent strikes are demanding an immediate doubling of their monthly minimum wage of $160. The Labor Ministry has offered them $100.

Mr. Sam Heng and other Labor Ministry officials who attended the meeting could not be reached. Prak Chanthoeun, director general of the ministry’s general department of labor conflict, said he did not attend the meeting but added that wage negotiations with the unions were indefinitely off.

In meetings Friday and Monday with the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), Mr. Wienen said he urged the factories suing the six unions for allegedly inciting protesters to damage factory property—which the unions deny—to drop their court complaints.

He claimed that GMAC said it would be suing ITUC as well for “interference” in the local labor dispute.

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo denied that the association threatened to sue ITUC and said there was no chance the factories would be withdrawing their court complaints against the six unions.

“As foreign investors we have to depend on the law,” he said, adding that that meant pressing their grievances through the courts when they feel their rights have been violated.

As for the unions’ ongoing claims that some of their representatives were either fired or not allowed to return to work since the strikes ended, Mr. Loo said GMAC would investigate whenever the unions submit the specific details of the cases to the association.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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