Ministry Presses Ahead With Draft Union Law

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said Tuesday that he hoped to have a draft of a controversial union law before the Council of Ministers next month and put to a vote at the National Assembly in short order. Despite a few major concessions to its critics though, some unions remain concerned about the legislation.

“The draft law will reach the Council of Ministers next month,” the minister told reporters after opening a workshop on the proposed law with union and garment factory representatives. “We will try to make it reach the legislature as soon as possible.”

Some unions, who already complain of heavy-handed union busting, say the law would only make life harder for them, and fear the government will use it to stifle legitimate industrial action. Employers say the unions are out of control and need to be reined in before wildcat strikes completely undermine investor confidence.

In his opening remarks at the workshop, Mr. Sam Heng said he did not want to see a repeat of the street demonstrations that have resulted from the recent drafting on an NGO law, and that the ministry was working hard at a compromise.

“All the views that have been suggested and recommended, we try to put them into the law. But every view cannot be included and there cannot be 100 percent agreement,” he said. “We are trying to cut down on the opposing views as much as possible.”

To that end, the ministry has significantly lowered the threshold for creating a local union.

Set at 20 percent of all employees in a given factory in the last draft of the law the ministry made public, in May last year, unions placed it among their main concerns. The International Labor Organization, which called that draft a step backward from previous versions, also singled out the condition for criticism.

The Labor Ministry did not release a new draft of the law Tuesday. But according to a summary of some of the more controversial provisions that the ministry prepared for the meeting, it has slashed the threshold to just 10 people.

Ath Thorn, who heads the largest independent union in the country, welcomed the change. He also welcomed the ministry’s decision to do away with a provision requiring hopeful union leaders to submit official criminal records, and to drop its plans to punish illegal strikes with prison time.

He said he still worried, however, about sections that would let 25 percent of a union’s members vote to disband the union and a simple majority to go on strike.

“Generally, we don’t want the law,” he said.

But Mr. Thorn said it was hard to properly assess the law without having a complete, updated draft.

“We’ve been asking for the latest draft so we can provide an opinion, but so far there has been no reply,” he said.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting garment factories, said the association was caught off guard by the lower threshold for forming a union and voiced its “strong objections.”

“We said that was too low and we should go back to the earlier threshold,” Mr. Loo said. If set at only 10 people, he added, “it will not stop the unions from multiplying.”

He said the association was also unhappy with changes that would see a local union receive “most-representative status”—guaranteeing it special collective bargaining rights—at a given factory with support from only 30 percent of employees.

Some unions also object to letting the Labor Ministry suspend their registration for infractions of the law and believe that the decision should be up to the courts. But Mr. Loo said it made sense to let the same body that registers unions suspend them.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said unions that had already registered with the government would not have to do so again if and when the law takes effect. But he defended the threshold for going on strike and proposed rules on filing financial statements.

“Some people use unions like a business and to make money off their members. Union members should know what their bosses are doing with their money,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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