New Draft of Union Law Adds Guilt by Association

An updated version of the draft Trade Union Law gives 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, according to a copy of the draft obtained this week.

Unions not aligned with the ruling CPP were already concerned that earlier drafts would have made it too hard to register new branches and would give the courts broad power to revoke union licenses. Even the International Labor Organization (ILO) said an earlier version of the law failed to live up to labor conventions the country has signed on to.

Critics say the new provision on associating with saboteurs—in a draft dated in October and recently leaked to Human Rights Watch—gives the government yet more undue power.

The U.S.-based advocacy group said in a statement that the new draft “gives sweeping powers to Labor Ministry officials to suspend union registration on flimsy grounds and without due process.”

The new provision says that the ministry will tell unions who the blacklisted groups are that they should stay away from. It does not explain how the ministry will determine who those groups are, what it means to “damage” the national interest, or what constitutes cooperation between unions.

In March 2014, however, the government blamed a handful of unions and the opposition CNRP for a quarter-million-dollars worth of property damage inflicted during garment worker protests two months earlier in Phnom Penh, which turned violent and briefly brought the country’s largest export industry to a standstill. Both the unions and the CNRP refused to take the blame.

The Labor Ministry’s spokesman could not be reached Tuesday. Sat Samoth, an undersecretary of state at the ministry who has helped draft the union law, said he was no longer involved and declined to comment.

The government says it wants the law passed this year, but has not publicly released a draft since last May.

Moeun Tola, who heads the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said a union law that gives the executive branch the power to suspend a union for any reason at all would breach Cambodia’s labor convention obligations.

Letting the Labor Ministry draw up its own blacklist of alleged saboteurs and unilaterally define the national interest, he said, would only make the law more dangerous for unions.

“It makes no sense at all to identify like this, because as a union you have a fundamental right to organize people,” he said. “It just gives the government more power to violate the fundamental rights of the workers.”

Tun Sophorn, national coordinator for the ILO, said he had seen the October version of the draft and asked the government to explain what it thinks an economic saboteur is.

“How do you identify? How do you define? We have asked for that…because otherwise it’s very vague,” he said.

Mr. Sophorn said he has seen two more drafts since October that both retained the provision. But he said he did not know whether the government has removed it since, and did not want to comment on what it would mean for Cambodia’s labor convention obligations until he did.

In May last year, the ILO said the version of the draft the Labor Ministry released then was a “step backwards” compared to earlier iterations.

Among the most contentious parts of the draft was a provision that would require support from at least 20 percent of the employees of a given workplace before they could unionize. Unions complained that the floor was too high, especially in the face of heavy-handed union busting tactics by garment factories. The ILO agreed that the proposed threshold was “unreasonably high.”

The same floor remained in the October version of the draft.

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