Labor Minister Slams Unions; Opposition Walks Out

In a speech at the National Assembly yesterday, Labor Minister Vong Sauth branded the unions that led last month’s garment sector strikes a “minority group” of troublemakers and claimed the strikes had not been conducted legally.

Opposition party members were not present for Mr Sauth’s speech, however, after walking out of the assembly following a spat between acting President Ngoun Nhel and prominent SRP lawmaker Son Chhay.

Mr Sauth, who had been invited by Mr Chhay to brief the assembly on recent labor developments including the strikes, accused Ath Thon and Morm Nhim–presidents of the Cambodian Labor Confederation and the Coalition of National Construction Unions–of incitement and blocking roads during the work stoppages.

“They have the right [to strike] but it must be under the law…. In protesting they blocked the road, which they have no right to do. Furthermore, they forced other people to join them and dragged other workers out of their work,” Mr Sauth said.

Encouraged by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, factories affected by the strikes sought court orders deeming them illegal and pursued civil complaints against union leaders.

The government gave tacit permission for the factories to proceed with court action in a Sept 16 Council of Ministers statement. However on Sept 29, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the courts to drop legal action against union representatives.

The strikes–which took place between Sept 13 and 16 and cost the industry an estimated $15 million in lost revenues–were proposed in July after a policy-making body decided to raise the minimum wage by just $6.

Mr Sauth blasted the union leaders for not accepting the LAC decision.

“There was a minority group who caused trouble by making strikes,” he said.

GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said the Labor Minister had consistently supported GMAC’s assertion that the strikes were illegal.

“All along the government acknowledged that the strikes were wrong…. In the spirit of trying to ensure that workers keep their jobs, the Prime Minister called for compromise,” he said.

Ek Sokpheakdey, CLC vice-president, said he had not expected the minister to raise the matter in this way.

“I am not surprised, but it is unexpected that the minister could raise [the issue] like that without reading any laws,” he said. “Our strike was not illegal. We followed all legal requirements.”

Opposition lawmakers had walked out of the Assembly before Mr Sauth had started speaking. Mr Chhay of the SRP later told reporters that they left when Mr Nhel, the acting president, prevented him from reading out a list of 18 questions addressed to Mr Sauth and submitted to the assembly on Oct 15.

Twenty lawmakers–18 from the SRP and 2 from the Human Rights Party–out of 76 in attendance followed Mr Chhay out, he said.

  (Additional reporting by Ian Williamson)


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