Labor Arbitrators Challenged by Limitations

The Arbitration Council has already ruled that three of Cambodia’s most posh hotels should pay their employees the service charges they are rightfully owed.

But the hotel workers may still be forced to strike on April 5 to demand payment of the long-contested service fees, in what is yet another example, union leaders said, of how the Arbitration Coun­cil is all roar and no bite when it comes to resolving labor disputes.

“The Arbitration Council is just, but it cannot [force] the management to adhere to its decisions,” Ly Korm, president of the Cam­bodia Tourism Service and Work­ers Foundation, said Monday.

Created in May 2003 to settle disputes and uphold Cambo­dian labor law, the council comprises 15 members from unions, employer associations and the Ministry of Social Affairs, said Hugo Van Noord, the Internat­ional Labor Organization’s chief technical adviser.

And it has been successful, he said, adding that strikes have dropped by more than 30 percent since the council began its work.

But the process is new to Cambodia and, although both unions and employers say they support the council, concerns are still being raised regarding its ability to fully resolve labor disputes.

Early this year, the council ruled that the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and Raffles Hotel Le Royal must give their employees the 10 percent service charge they collects from their guests.

But even when the council’s decision—or award—is issued, it is not always binding. This means that either side can dispute the decision, Van Noord said. And if one party does not agree—the award is dismissed.

This is what happened in the case of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’ Angkor and Raffles Hotel Le Royal when management rejected the council’s decision, he said.

Mathoeung Sok, an arbitrator with the council, said the process might be more effective if every decision was binding.

“But it is not so bad [now],” he said. “The process is new. One party may not like the decision, but after thinking about it, they accept.”

But even binding decisions do not necessarily solve disputes, union representatives said Monday.

In September, the council ordered the Hotel Cambodiana to begin paying its employees the 10 percent service charge. Van Noord said that both sides agreed to the award and it became binding. But employees say they are not receiving the money.

“The Cambodiana was obliged to continue [paying], but as I understand, they stopped,” Van Noord said.

Now workers from seven luxury hotels plan to strike April 5 if employers do not begin distributing the service charge by April 2, Ly Korm said Sunday.

Phnom Penh Hotels Association President Tek Ket said the hotels would like to eliminate the service charge altogether and claimed that the labor law does not require them to collect it.

“What [the workers] want is too strict, they are being unreasonable,” he said.

The council makes decisions, it does not enforce the law, said Daniel Adler, an Arbitration Council advisor. “We don’t have a police force,” he said, adding that even a binding decision would still have to be enforced in court.

But Ly Korm and others have no faith in Cambodia’s less-than-impartial court system.

“The court is corrupt—whoever has the money will win the case,” Ly Korm said.

“Most of the time Arbitration Council decisions cannot be implemented because management abuses the law,” said Chhorn Sokha, president of the Cambodian Democratic Coalition of Apparel Federation.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that now is not a good time to make all council decisions binding. If one side looses the ability to nullify an award it finds unfair there must be a court appeal process, he said.

But Van Sou Ieng gave the council credit because it has helped diminish illegal strikes. But in the beginning, he said, the process was confused because arbitrators were inexperienced. Another problem has been pro-union bias, he alleged.

But Van Noord said it is hard to tell whether the council is favoring unions or employers because its decisions usually are not black and white.

Many times the arbitrators try to strike a middle ground between the two sides, and its rulings don’t favor one side or the other, he said.

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