After calling off last week’s garment strikes, union leaders appealed to the government to ensure that the country’s courts did not become a forum for retaliation against workers.
“I propose to the government, especially the Prime Minister, to ask those employers and other people who want to pursue legal charges to bring them to an end and stop using legal charges to settle this,” Kong Athit, secretary-general of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said by telephone immediately after ending the stoppages last Thursday.
More than a week later, it appears his plea has fallen on deaf ears.
Courts in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kompong Speu issued orders last week declaring the strikes illegal and compelling workers to go back to their factories or face dismissal, according to the union and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. Court officials have remained tight-lipped on the subject.
At least 92 union representatives have been prevented from returning to work pending court investigation, after employers filed civil lawsuits against them.
And around 10,000 workers in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district–where the CLC have their strongest support and where some of Cambodia’s largest garment factories are based–have been on strike all this week calling for their representative’s return.
Kandal Provincial Court Judge In Van Vibol referred all questions on the legality of the strikes to the Labor Ministry while Oum Mean, secretary of state at the ministry, referred all questions yesterday to the courts.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court President Chiv Keng said yesterday that despite ordering striking workers back to work at the behest of employers, the court had not ruled on the legality of the strikes as a whole.
GMAC was encouraging its members to turn to the courts even before the strikes began.
“The law is clear. Only the courts have the discretion to declare on the legality or illegality of the strikes,” said GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo.
Mr Loo said the fact that the strikes were declared illegal allowed employers to take civil action against representatives.
“Because of the strikes the factories suffered losses. We need the court to tell us who is responsible. We feel it is those who led the strike,” he said.
Employers are suing the representatives for incitement, he said–a charge the unions and the representatives deny.
The unions set out their counterarguments in a statement released Wednesday by the CLC and the Cambodian National Confederation–the unions that led the strikes.
By law, unions must hold a secret ballot among members prior to any action, and must submit notice at least seven days in advance of a strike. During this period, the Labor Minister is required to continue mediation.
Given the scale of the strikes–the unions claimed more than 200,000 workers took part in the final day, while GMAC said around 30,000–the unions said they were unable to organize a secret ballot but instead collected signatures from around 60,000 members, the statement read.
The unions informed GMAC and the Labor Ministry of their strike plans on Aug 18, 25 days before the strike.
The CLC’s Mr Athit said the unions did everything they could to comply with the law.
“The Ministry of Labor…is obliged to submit the case for arbitration. They never took this step,” he said.
But it was the government’s involvement in those civil suits that drew the wrath of human rights groups.
The Council of Ministers on Sept 16 approved a request from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministries for the government to “cooperate” with GMAC in filing the complaints.
In a joint statement issued earlier this week, seven of Cambodia’s most prominent human rights groups condemned the government’s “court-sponsored retaliation against union members.”
“The government seems to be engaging in scare tactics,” David Welsh, country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, is quoted as saying.
Speaking yesterday, Mr Welsh said he felt foreign companies, and governments, with an interest in the sector would be watching the court proceedings closely.
“If they follow through with this there will be a huge international response…. It would just be completely counterproductive,” he said.