Interior Minister Promises to Push Through Trade Union Law

Interior Minister Sar Kheng met with factory owners and investors in the garment sector Wednesday, offering his assurance that the government would pass a controversial Trade Union Law as a means to maintain order in the country’s largest industry, which employs some 600,000 workers.

Mr. Kheng said those under his command would not use force to keep workers in line, but that he would work with the Labor Ministry to push through a law that would give the government more control over unions and the courts power to revoke the registration of unions deemed to be acting illegally.

“I can contribute somehow to prevent demonstrations and find solutions for demonstrations but cannot use force, shoot or use violence against workers,” Mr. Kheng told representatives of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) during a meeting at the Ministry of Interior.

“I acknowledge that there are too many unions,” Mr. Kheng continued, estimating that there are 4,000 unions and 90 union federations operating in the country. “I think it is the government’s responsibility to solve this, and I will cooperate with His Excellency [Labor Minister] Ith Samheng to prepare this law.”

“We need to do it. It is a must, although it is controversial,” he said.

A draft of the Trade Union Law made public in May was reviewed by the International Labor Organization, which said that it fell well short of meeting international conventions—signed by Cambodia—that ensure the right to assemble and unionize.

The proposed law gives the country’s courts, which over the past month have placed a number of the country’s most prominent union leaders under judicial supervision, broad power to revoke union licenses. The draft law also stipulates that at least 20 percent of employees at an enterprise must agree to join a union before it is allowed to register with the Ministry of Labor.

Union leaders and labor advocates worry that the law will be used to suppress activist unions and prevent the registration of new unions that the government doesn’t like, while investors in the sector argue that the multiplicity of unions makes it difficult to negotiate or maintain industrial peace.

The meeting between Mr. Kheng and GMAC comes in the midst of tense negotiations over a new minimum wage in the garment sector, which was scheduled to be voted on this week, but was pushed back to November by the Ministry of Labor this week without explanation.

In December, the last time the government raised the minimum wage, a group of six unions staged nationwide demonstrations that roiled the sector, ending on January 3 when military police opened fire into a crowd of rock-throwing protesters, killing five workers and injuring dozens more.

Mr. Kheng assured factory owners that he would do whatever he could to prevent a repeat of the unrest.

“I will try my best to lead the force to keep order…keep security and prevent violence or fires,” he said.

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