Labor Advocate Launches NGO to Unite Unions

In the tumultuous lead-up to and aftermath of the 2013 national election, when tens of thousands of people turned out for rallies and marches across the country, it was easy to think that those calling for change were speaking with one voice.

But Moeun Tola and his colleagues at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), a legal aid NGO, heard something else.

“We noticed that farmers advocate for their own, workers were advocating for their own and the youth were advocating for their own…. We did not coordinate across groups,” he said.

A new NGO that Mr. Tola and about a dozen fellow staff members from CLEC are launching on Friday aims to change that. The Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, or Central for short, wants to bring those groups under one roof, hoping the power of numbers will win them the labor rights they can’t get on their own. But Central’s focus will be the county’s vital garment sector, where its founders believe a large but divided labor move- ment can be harnessed by putting more power straight into the hands of the industry’s 700,000 mostly female workers.

Mr. Tola was for several years in charge of labor issues at CLEC, one of its four core programs. But after a strategic review of its work in the wake of the 2013 election, the group felt the issue needed more attention and decided it best to break off the program into its own NGO, with a staff of 14 to start and an annual budget of $200,000.

“The new organization is focused on organizing working people, how we’re going to network the people from across sectors, not only the worker, but also the youth, farmer and so on—how we’re going to empower the grassroots,” he said. “Working people we define like all those people who are not the owner of the capital, but they are the producer of capital, who work to help the capitalist to be wealthy but are not the owner of the wealth.”

But even that is a lot for one group to take on. They believe they will have the most leverage, and can have the greatest impact, by focusing on Cambodia’s $5.8 billion garment industry and the global brands placing orders here.

As Mr. Tola noted, garment factories host the largest single industrial workforce in the country, a workforce that is already heavily unionized. Cambodia has signed on to a host of international labor rights conventions that can be used to hold the government accountable. And most of the clothing the factories make go to North America and Europe, which, compared to China, are more likely to care about the conditions their workers toil in.

“Our goal is to bring all the brands together to negotiate with the unions in the country for the living wage, because we see the government…is also hesitating to pay a high minimum wage because they [are] concerned the investor will go to Myanmar or Vietnam or Thailand,” he said. “So we need to see the brands express their real commitment, that they commit to pay [a] higher wage and they commit to invest longer in the country.”

The international trade union confederation IndustriALL, which counts several Cambodian unions as affiliates, recently launched an initiative to do just that in Cambodia and across the region so that raises in any one country don’t just drive brands to shift their orders to a neighboring nation.

But where IndustriALL and other groups are taking a top-down approach, Mr. Tola said, Central will work from the bottom up.

“Unions, so far, are quite divided,” he said. “We have around 3,000 unions, but only few unions are fighting for the wage increase and so on, and even among the few unions who stand up, they still have some kind of divisions. The divisions of the top level, it might be [because of] the passive participation of the members. If the members understand that, and they participate more actively, they can hold the top leaders to be accountable, to be united.”

“Central is the floor to unite the different unions,” Mr. Tola said.

“Our strategy is to empower the grassroots, so the grassroots need to tell the national union what to do, or need to tell the regional unions what to do,” he added. “We need to accept that the democratic union is not [one with] the power from the top, in needs to be from the bottom.”

Central wants to get unions with members inside each of the factories supplying the biggest brands sourcing from Cambodia to work together and focus their efforts on those brands. Workers will be able to sign online petitions to complain about workplace violations and participate in training to take photographs and videos of any breaches.

William Conklin, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, welcomed Central’s plans and agreed that Cambodia’s union movement was highly fragmented, to the detriment of workers.

“It’s divided by ideology, personality, sector, for several reasons,” he said, not to mention politics. “To the outside observer, it just seems like such a mess…. It has affected workers rights over time—there’s no doubt about it.”

Mr. Conklin said there was also “a lot of untapped potential” in putting more pressure on the brands.

“The brands have been saying the same thing for a long time,” he said. “But they’ve been doing very little and getting away with it.”

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