In Garment Sector, a Labor Movement Divided

There was so much noise blasting from the loudspeakers that the occasional rallying cry from striking workers at the demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district last week could hardly be heard.

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President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union Ath Thun, center, rallies garment factory workers striking for a minimum wage increase in September 2010. (Pring Samrang)

One 2-meter high stack of amplifiers had been set up outside the Nex-T factory and was blaring directives of union leaders from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), encouraging the 300 workers to keep striking.

Coming from another two large loudspeakers attached to the factory wall was an even louder broadcast from a representative of the Cambodian Labor Union Federation (CLUF), a CPP-aligned union, urging the workers to go back to work.

“We [management and workers] are like husband and wife,” said the CLUF representative over the loudspeakers. “We should work together. You should consider this—if you don’t work, you won’t get paid and you will lose your attendance bonus.”

The strikers were supporting two CCAWDU representatives who say they were ousted from the factory for trying to organize a CCAWDU-affiliated union.

“The CLUF does not understand what a union is,” came the response from the CCAWDU loudspeakers. “Why do they fight against us? When there is oppression, we have to fight against it.”

The opposing interests of the CCAWDU and CLUF-affiliated unions at Nex-T act as a metaphor for just how splintered Cambodia’s labor movement has become, with most factories giving preferential treatment to unions with close ties to the CPP, labor experts say.

Today, there are more than 600 unions operating in Cambodia for a workforce of just 300,000 garment workers. That compares to just 60 unions present in the country in 2010.

Part of the reason for this is that Cambodia’s trade union law places no limitations on the number of unions allowed to register in the country or operate in a given factory. What’s more, only 20 workers are needed in order to apply for a union license.

But there are other reasons why Cambodia’s labor movement has become so fractured.

Ath Thun, president of CCAWDU, said the reason for the myriad of unions is twofold: Union leaders are given financial incentives, and workers are urged to create unions to draw support away from groups affiliated with the CCAWDU—the only truly independent union body in the country.

“Factories organize and support their own unions,” he said. “They pay their union leaders monthly money under the table.”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, said that “management supported” unions do exist, but that the splintering of the labor movement was also due to legal protections granted to workers who become union officials.

“The multiplicity of unions is because the office holders are protected under the law. So there is an incentive for any worker to be elected as a union leader, be-cause then in a way he has very high job security,” he said.

Whatever the reason for the divisions inside the labor movement, the more than 60 union confederations are principally divided into two camps: CPP-aligned confederations and independent ones.

According to Dave Welsh, country program director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), CCAWDU is the only labor confederation in the garment sector that could be considered independent by international standards.

“The unions are fractured mainly along political lines,” said Mr. Welsh, with the wide majority of the garment sector unions in step with the ruling CPP.

The country’s first labor union, the Free Trade Union, has had close ties to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party since its launch in 1996.

But CCAWDU “has no outright political affiliation, certainly with the governing party,” said Mr. Welsh.

Mr. Thun at CCAWDU said that most CPP-affiliated unions are created just to support factory management. “Pro-government unions are mostly the pro-factory unions. They don’t only work for workers, but for the companies and the government,” he said.

Chun Mun Thal, the leader of the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation, said that siding with the CPP was a pragmatic decision to strengthen the position of his union.

“When you work with trade unions, you need to be involved with politics,” said Mr. Mun Thal. “We’re CPP because Prime Minister Hun Sen helps us in negotiations.”

“They [CPP-aligned unions] are not a force for evil,” said Mr. Welsh. “But if you’re viewing trade unions as an independent civil society body that isn’t automatically going to be at the behest of the government whether financially or in terms of policy, that’s an issue.”

Mr. Loo said, however, that a union with political affiliations could still improve the lot of workers in the country.

Factory management paying union leaders to maintain industrial relations, he said, does not create a conflict of interest, but rather an “early warning system” that allows both parties to avoid disputes that might lead to a strike.

“Every single union would have a political agenda behind it. But to me, when it comes to politics, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Whether you can be, or should be, defined as a trade union, lies simply on the question: Are you fighting for workers?”

The U.S.’ largest labor group, for example, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has historical ties with the U.S. Democratic Party, Mr. Loo noted.

For Mr. Welsh, the crucial question is not one of what party a union supports, but the influence of the party in determining what position that union will take on policy matters.

“The unions that are affiliated with the government…rarely won’t toe the line that is put forth by the government,” said Mr. Welsh.

This was clearly seen in 2010 when tens of thousands of garment factory workers belonging to unions across the political spectrum turned out demanding a minimum wage of $93, a $40 raise on what was then a minimum wage of $53.

Soon after the demonstrations began in July, a tripartite group made up of seven labor confederation leaders, seven factory representatives and 14 government representatives that make policy recommendations to the government, met with Labor Minister Vong Soth.

Mr. Soth proposed a $5 in-crease, which then went to a vote. The 21 government and factory representatives were unanimous in their approval of the raise. The seven union chiefs voted 5 to 2 in favor of the new proposal, and Mr. Thun and Morn Nhim, president of the National Labor Union Federation, voted against the suggestion.

The $5 increase was officially endorsed by the Labor Advisory Committee, and Mr. Soth later announced that the decision would take effect in August 2010.

There are more than 300,000 workers employed in Cambodia’s garment sector, and about 80 percent of them are unionized, according to Mr. Welsh.

While critics say CPP-affiliated unions are more likely to act on the behalf of factory management, Sam Aun, who heads CLUF and also works as a CPP official at the Council of Ministers, said his union was not influenced by the CPP.

“There is no conflict of interest. In negotiations, I only represent the workers and the un-ions,” said Mr. Aun, who confirmed he works at the Council of Ministers but refused to give his position.

However, on matters of policy, Mr. Aun has very publicly walked the government and factory line.

In August 2010, following general strikes over the minimum wage, Mr. Aun appeared on the state-owned television channel TVK and appealed to the government to take “serious action” against those who continued to oppose the minimum wage decision through strikes.

At the Nex-T factory on Thursday, workers left the picket lines after agreeing to accept the offer from management to return to work until the Arbitration Council makes a decision on whether management discriminated against the two workers for their union-building activities.

Management also promised to pay striking workers 50 percent of their salaries for the days they did not work. Representatives for the workers said they took the deal because they were running out of money to eat and would not be able to pay rent.

Factory manager Chea Samnang continued to insist last week that the two CCAWDU representatives were fired for poor work performance, but also said that she warned them multiple times to stop trying to organize an affiliate union at the factory.

“We already have a union at our factory,” she said. “That should be enough for our workers.”

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