Human Rights Watch Says Anti-Union Activities Must End

The government has been urged to put a stop to anti-union practices in garment factories after workers at a number of plants complained to a rights group that attempts to unionize were met with intimidation and dismissals.

In a statement released Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had found incidents of garment factories actively trying to suppress the establishment of independent unions, forcing staff to join pro-management unions and security forces unleashed on striking workers.

“Cambodian garment factories supplying international brands regularly use threats, firing, and non-renewal of temporary employment contracts to interfere with workers’ rights to establish and participate in independent unions,” Human Rights Watch said in the statement, adding that the government and factories should “do more to ensure their suppliers comply with the law and cease anti-union practices.”

Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said there is an onus on global brands to “make sure their suppliers allow workers to form independent unions without interference, and that union representatives can be in factories without threats and retaliation.”

The statement comes after the organization interviewed about 200 garment workers and union representatives from 55 factories at the end of last year, and found that “anti-union practices” were noted in at least 35 of those plants.

The names of the factories were kept confidential in order to protect the workers who were interviewed. According to Human Rights Watch, one of those interviewed said managers told them to thumbprint a declaration that they would not form a union, and that they would be dismissed if they did form one.

According to the statement, pro-management unions established at a number of factories also failed to advocate for workers’ grievances—something Dave Welsh, country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said is a “widespread” practice.

“It’s a huge problem, but not isolated to the garment industry. It is a practice in the industry to support organizations that may register as unions, but don’t provide responsibly,” he said.

In October, five garment workers were “physically pushed” out of a factory after it emerged that they intended to set up an independent union, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to these concerns, the organization also highlighted the tactic of factories issuing fixed-term contracts to intimidate workers.

“Many workers told Human Rights Watch that factory managers threatened to not renew their employment contracts if they were involved with independent unions,” the statement says.

In a public notice last week, the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia (GMAC) argued that the right to strike is not fundamental, and that the “multiplicity of unions has [been] and remains the garment and footwear industry’s biggest challenge in Cambodia.”

GMAC said these challenges include “an increasing mass of unrepresentative unions, infighting amongst unions on the factory floor to gain popularity, misrepresentation of membership numbers due to double counting, and an inability to engage with the unions constructively.”

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