Opposing Unions Compete for International Support on Draft Law

Two opposing camps of unions representing a large share of the country’s roughly 700,000 garment workers handed in petitions this week to the U.S. Embassy and others asking for their support on a controversial draft union law during a visit to the country from a U.S. labor envoy.

Unions that support the law, which would set the rules for forming unions and level penalties at those that break the rules, handed their petition to the U.S. and European Union embassies in Phnom Penh on Monday. Those against the law submitted their petition to the two embassies Tuesday, as well as to the Labor Ministry and the National Assembly.

Union leader Ath Thorn hands a petition to a Labor Ministry official in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, urging the government to scrap a proposed union law. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Union leader Ath Thorn hands a petition to a Labor Ministry official in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, urging the government to scrap a proposed union law. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The push coincided with a two-day visit from Scott Busby, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

“We welcome this draft law,” said Chuon Mom Thol, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and an adviser to the Labor Ministry. “As the first article says, the goal of this law is to reduce the large number of unions and to make unions stronger.”

The country’s garment factories have long complained that there are far too many unions representing their employees, making it exceedingly difficult to negotiate with them and reach lasting deals with their workers.

Many unions, however, particularly those not affiliated with the government, accuse factories of heavy-handed union busting and say the draft law, if passed, would make it even harder to unionize and combat employers’ labor abuses. For instance, a prospective union would need support from 20 percent of the employees at a given workplace to be approved.

“Even without setting a number, it is already hard to create a local union, especially an independent union,” said Ath Thorn, president of the largest independent union in the country.

“How can we get 20 percent of the workers at a factory? And now the Interior Ministry is asking for 25 percent. Only the unions that support the employers or a political party will be able to create a union,” he said.

Mr. Thorn’s group of unions wants the government to scrap the draft law altogether.

It is not clear when the government plans to move ahead with the law. At a workshop on the draft in Phnom Penh a year ago, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said the latest version was actually a step backward and fell short of Cambodia’s obligations under international labor conventions it has signed on to.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Mr. Busby on Tuesday morning, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said he had assured the U.S. envoy not to worry.

“I told him to please not worry because the Ministry of Labor is working carefully on this with the ILO to make this law good and to protect the workers,” he said. “We do everything to protect the interests of our people.”

In a press conference at the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Busby urged the government to release its latest version of the draft and put it up for thorough public debate.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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