Latest Draft Of Union Law Leans in Unions’ Favor

Trade unions appear to have prevailed over employers in their yearslong tug-of-war over a controversial draft Trade Union Law that reached the National Assembly last week.

The most recent draft of the law, which would regulate the country’s several hundred unions, was passed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet early this month and obtained on Monday by The Cambodia Daily. It is the first full version of the draft law made public since mid-2014.

At that time, the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has been advising the government on the law, raised major concerns with a provision that would require a union trying to set up a local branch to obtain support from 20 percent of the employees at a given worksite. It called the threshold “unreasonably high” and out of step with Cambodia’s international obligations to protect workers’ rights.

In July, the Labor Ministry abruptly dropped the threshold to just 10 people, pleasing unions but upsetting employers, who have cited the multiplicity of unions as among the main obstacles to maintaining stable industrial relations in the garment sector, one of the pillars of the country’s economy.

The draft that has reached the National Assembly maintains that 10-person threshold.

“A local union can be created by at least 10 workers and employees at an enterprise or institution,” the new draft says.

Also sticking to the changes announced in July, the new draft proposes granting Most Representative Status—and the exclusive collective bargaining rights it comes with—to any union that gets support from at least 30 percent of the employees at a worksite. In September, the ILO said that figure was an improvement on the 50 percent proposed in previous drafts.

The new draft also raises the threshold for dissolving a union from 25 percent of members to 50 percent, and lets anyone proposing to lead a local union self-report their criminal record instead of having to obtain and submit an official government document, which was also proposed in a previous draft.

The draft also appears to have removed a provision that would have given the Labor Ministry the power to suspend unions that “cooperate” or hold joint activities with groups the government deems to have caused economic sabotage or “damaged” the national interest. The vague wording raised fears of arbitrary enforcement and abuse.

Ath Thorn, who has led opposition to the law as head of the largest independent union in the country, had yet to see the new draft and declined to comment.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the employers’ two main concerns were still the low threshold for forming a local union and the inability of the ministries to punish unions that break the rules. He said that factory owners worry that having all punitive decisions subject to court approval would take too long.

“We cannot wait for action that could take months,” he said. “[The ministries] should at least have the authority to suspend…. It seems they do not have any authority to sanction at all.”

ILO officials either declined to comment on the latest draft or could not be reached.

At the National Assembly on Monday, the CPP-dominated permanent committee assigned the CPP-led legislative commission to study the draft before it goes to vote, with help from the CNRP-led labor commission.

Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun declined to comment on the commission assignment.

CNRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth, who chairs the labor commission, said the CPP likely put one of its own commissions in charge of reviewing the draft to ensure that the opposition could not block its progress to the Assembly floor.

The opposition has generally sided with the unions most critical of the draft law, but it is not clear if the CNRP will be taking part in the draft’s legislative review.

Amid a deteriorating political climate, the CPP-dominated National Assembly has in recent weeks stripped CNRP President Sam Rainsy of his status as a lawmaker and CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha of his position as vice president of parliament, both moves that the opposition has denounced as unconstitutional.

The courts are also threatening to throw Mr. Rainsy in jail for two years over a years-old defamation conviction should he return from his current trip overseas.

CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith said the party had yet to decide whether to take part in the review of the union law—or any official work—until the latest bout of political brinksmanship passes.

“We have to meet tomorrow evening to discuss our legislative work,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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