Following a complaint from the Free Trade Union (FTU) over the Ministry of Labor’s refusal to register 10 local branches of its organization, a ministry official said Wednesday that the constitutional right to freedom of association has been suspended until a new trade union law is passed by the government.
Chea Mony, president of the FTU, an opposition-aligned union, said Wednesday that he sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen complaining about the Ministry of Labor’s rejection of his request to license new branches of his union.
“I submitted a proposal with the registration department at the Labor Ministry to register local unions in factories and enterprises, but one officer told me his minister [Ith Sam Heng] temporarily banned issuing [licenses for unions],” Mr. Mony said.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, confirmed that Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP-led government would not be issuing licenses to new unions until a forthcoming trade union law is adopted and implemented.
Under that proposed law, new unions would need permission from the ministry in order to register and organize, Mr. Sour said.
“We will allow unions to create local unions in factories and enterprises after the law is put into official use,” he said.
“Now we are waiting for the National Assembly’s approval after the ILO [International Labor Organization] checks and changes some of the meaning” in the draft trade union law, Mr. Sour said.
It was not known Wednesday when the trade union law, which is still in draft form, will be completed and ratified by the government.
Mr. Sour said the suspension was necessary as the Labor Ministry was concerned about the large number of unions that have been registered with the government.
Both the Constitution and the Labor Law protect the right of association.
David Welsh, Cambodia program director for the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, said that the government’s indefinite suspension of the right to associate was highly concerning, as was the prospect of tighter control of unions.
“Putting further restrictions on the right to form unions would be hugely concerning internationally. Especially given [the] political element of the industry,” he said.
In 1999, Cambodia ratified the ILO’s Convention 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize. Article 2 of the convention states: “Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization.”
Article 3 states: “The public authorities shall refrain from any interference, which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.”
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the interests of factory owners, has criticized the proliferation of unions in the garment industry.
In a statement posted to its website, GMAC writes that the freedom to associate is being abused by unions.
“Multiplicity of unions has and remains the garment and footwear industry’s biggest challenge in Cambodia. Freedom of Association in Cambodia is at an extreme,” the statement says.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)