ILO Says Gov’t Moving Backward With Draft Union Law

The U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) said Wednesday that the latest draft of a controversial Trade Union Law was worse than earlier versions, ignored the ILO’s recommendations, and still posed major risks to labor rights in the country.

John Ritchotte, a regional labor relations specialist for the ILO, issued the harsh critique at the start of a two-day workshop on the draft between the government, employers and trade unions.

Independent unions, which already complain of heavy-handed union busting, mostly by factory management, say the law would only make life harder for them and create legal mechanisms to suppress union activity. Employers, mostly in the country’s $5 billion garment export industry, say those unions are out of control and need to be reined in before strikes completely undermine investor confidence.

This week’s workshop in Phnom Penh and the latest draft of the union law come soon after nationwide garment worker strikes briefly turned violent, and after a wave of arrests, beatings and fatal shootings of garment workers and unionists at the hands of soldiers and military police.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Ritchotte said many of the victims were carrying out “legitimate” union activity.

“There is a pressing need for the authorities, including the police, the army, the judiciary and local government to exercise restraint and due process of law,” he told the audience, including Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng. “While violence and destruction of property are certainly not condoned under ILO conventions, the response from the authorities must also be proportional and lawful.”

Going by those same conventions, which Cambodia has ratified, Mr. Ritchotte said the latest Trade Union Law continued to fall well short of compliance.

“The last draft in 2011 was largely in compliance with ratified conventions and had received broad consensus from the stakeholders. This current draft appears to be a step backwards,” he said.

What was especially troubling, he added, was that the ILO has repeatedly raised the shortcomings with the government, “and yet the current draft has addressed very few of them.”

He singled out a few parts of the draft, including articles that restricted the freedom of association to private sector employees and set an “unreasonably high” threshold for forming a union, now proposed at 20 percent of the workers at a given workplace.

Mr. Ritchotte said restricting collective bargaining rights only to unions that could count more than 50 percent of workers as members was also out of step with Cambodia’s international obligations, and that some of the penalties were so ill defined and vague “as to allow very arbitrary application” by the government or courts.

In her own opening remarks at Wednesday’s workshop, Sandra D’Amico, vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Businesses, said employers needed to know that the unions they were dealing with offered an honest reflection of their workers.

She said all sides should remain flexible in deciding where the threshold for forming a union should finally settle.

“What constitutes a reasonable number may vary based on the particular conditions of a country and with which restrictions those are imposed,” she said.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, the largest independent union in the country, said the draft was so flawed that it should be thrown out entirely.

“The union’s stand is to not have this union law, because there would be more restrictions on union activity,” he said on the sidelines of the workshop. “We all know this law was first requested by the employers to control and put pressure on the unions.”

After the day’s deliberations, which were closed to the media, Mr. Thorn said the unions and employers each went through their comments on the draft, but spent little time actually debating the points.

He said Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor also rebuked the ILO for using the workshop to air its concerns about the draft.

“The government said that if the ILO wants to say something, the ILO should wait and file a complaint with the committee,” Mr. Thorn said.

“Why did the government invite the ILO to come if it doesn’t want the ILO to say anything?”

Contacted by telephone, Mr. Suor declined to comment.

The government hopes to have the law passed by the end of the year.

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