Government’s Trade Union Law May Limit Freedom of Association

A draft trade union law that the government has pledged to introduce by the end of the year includes provisions that will allow for unions to be suspended if their activities are deemed illegal, the head of Cambodia’s largest employers association said Wednesday.

Van Sou Ieng, president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Association (Camfeba), said that the long-awaited trade union law, drafts of which have not been released for public scrutiny, will allow for punitive actions against workers’ associations that do not heed orders from the Ministry of Labor.

“[I]n the trade union law, yes, there is some provision, not for deregistration, but for suspension for a short period of time if the trade union has exceeded certain procedures or notifications…from the Ministry of Labor,” Mr. Sou Ieng said at a press conference at the Sofitel Hotel in Phnom Penh.

Mr. Sou Ieng, who is also chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said the decision to suspend unions would be made either by the courts or the Labor Ministry.

“That was incorporated [in the planned labor law] despite ILO [International Labor Organization] advising that there should not be deregistration for the trade unions in certain circumstances,” Mr. Sou Ieng said.

“The freedom of association is great, to the point where you have 3,000 trade unions for 600 factories,” Mr. Sou Ieng said sarcastically.

“Do we continue to excel in freedom of association and provide maybe another few thousand trade unions for a few hundred factories or should we look at how we can keep the principle of freedom of association that would be much more helpful in industrial relations,” he added.

In its policy recommendations put forward in a report released on Tuesday, Camfeba requested that the new trade union law “ensure that provisions are included for dismantling and revoking union registrations that…do not abide by the law.”

Despite its forthcoming ability to disband unions at will, Minister of Labor Ith Sam Heng said that the new trade union law will still comply with the ILO’s Convention 87 on the freedom of association, ratified by Cambodia in 1999, which prevents public officials from interfering in the universal right to organize unions.

“This law will be created in line with the ILO Convention 87 and the context of Cambodia,” Mr. Sam Heng said following the launch of separate reports from the ILO and Camfeba at Sofitel.

“The objective of this law will not be to put pressure on only one party, meaning it will be for both unions and [employers],” he said, declining to confirm whether the law will include specific measures allowing for punitive measures against unions.

During a closed-door meeting last month with representatives of major international clothing brands, Mr. Sam Heng said that the trade union law would be introduced by the end of 2014.

“The new labor union law will be submitted in the third quarter to the government and in the fourth quarter to the parliament,” Mr. Sam Heng told the brand representatives.

The National Assembly, currently composed of only 68 lawmakers from the ruling CPP, is able to pass new laws. However, with less than a two-thirds majority in the 123-seat parliament, cannot legally change the Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the freedom of association.

Maurizio Bussi, the ILO’s country director, said that the trade union law was a “government initiative,” and he declined to comment on a potential provision that would allow for the suspension of certain unions.

“When we have something to say about that we will organize another press conference,” Mr. Bussi said.

Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights organization, said that any provision allowing for the suspension of union registrations, if proposed as law, “would be vigorously commented on by the ILO.”

Mr. Welsh added that the international precedent is for labor and union laws to expand and protect the freedom of association, not limit it.

“Raised in context of almost weekly utterances of reducing labor rights, any law put in place that is punitive is regressive and very counterproductive,” Mr. Welsh said.

Last week, the Ministry of Labor refused to register new branches of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union (FTU), explaining that union leaders are now required to show proof of a clean criminal record from the Ministry of Justice.

The previous week, a Ministry of Labor spokesman said that no new unions would be registered until the trade union law was passed, a statement that he retracted the next day without explanation.

Kong Athit, secretary-general of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said that individual union organizers, not the organizations they represent, should be punished if they violate the law.

“If any individual does something wrong, the law can only punish that person, it can’t close the entire union,” Mr. Athit said.

“The right for freedom of association must not be limited at any level.”

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