Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on the Labor and Justice ministries to draft two laws—one pertaining to labor unions and another to establish a legal body to manage labor disputes.
Speaking at the biannual Government-Private Sector Forum on Wednesday, Hun Sen said the ministries should set to work and ready the laws for debate after the July national election.
“The two draft laws will be debated in the next government,” Hun Sen said. “In the meantime, government officials must work with the arbitration council to resolve labor disputes.”
According to the International Labor Organization, all labor disputes are funneled through the Ministry of Labor. Disputes involving individuals are referred to the regular court system, while collective disputes go to an arbitration council that has the power to make decisions but not enforce them.
The arbitration council has been fairly effective and solves about 70 percent of the disputes that come its way, said John Ritchotte, chief technical adviser for the ILO’s Labor Dispute Resolution Project.
However, a specialized labor court stands to be more effective given its ability to enforce decisions—something government officials and Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia Chairman Van Sou Ieng agree is key to the sector’s development.
“We need a mechanism to enforce the law,” Van Sou Ieng said by telephone Thursday.
Today, there are a plethora of unions—GMAC puts the number at more than 1,100, but according to the ILO, there is no accurate record of exactly how many unions there are in Cambodia. Many unions are ill-equipped, both in size and capacity, to represent people, and their actions go largely unregulated, Van Sou Ieng said.
“There are too many unions,” he said. “Three members cannot pretend to represent more than 100,000 workers. It is not reasonable,” he said.
“Union leaders should need certain education, know how to read, be of a certain maturity and have work experience.”
Van Sou Ieng said the new legal initiative was not intended to infringe on the rights of workers to join unions or negotiate with their employer.
Labor Ministry Undersecretary of State Oum Mean said an updated law is needed to better regulate unions because the existing one, dating back to 1997, only briefly touches on the issue.
“When the unions create problems, it causes workers to lose benefits. It is time for us to establish a union law,” he said, adding that his ministry will begin the drafting process straight away.
Free Trade Union President Chea Mony expressed concern that the new laws would unlawfully restrict union activities and favor unions aligned with the ruling CPP.
“The law already gives us a right to a union,” he said. “I am afraid that there will be restrictions on the union activities.”
“Most unions are affiliated with the ruling party, and they use their affiliation for their own benefit…. The new law will constrain independent unions,” he said.
Chuon Mom Thol, president of the CPP-affiliated Cambodian Union Federation, said Thursday that he supported the move toward detailed regulation.
“At the moment, there are too many unions,” he said, adding that unions from opposing political parties often spend their energy competing with one another and don’t accomplish anything.
“If the CPP-affiliated union negotiates with the factory and the SRP union calls for a strike, there must be disciplinary measures against that union,” he said. “The only loser is the union.”
“It is anarchy. There is too much. One union within one factory, that should be enough,” he said.
While the actual contents of the proposed laws remain to be seen, Ritchotte said that, in theory, both would be positive developments.
“In principle, we support better laws and well-functioning courts. Of course, what’s important is what these laws will look like and how they will be enforced.”
Provided the new labor court can “avoid the problems of corruption and inappropriate influence that characterize the current court system,” it would provide an effective method of hearing labor disputes as well as a recourse for individuals who presently have limited options within the regular court system, Ritchotte said.
The union law will need to balance the rights of the workers to form and join unions with the need to regulate union rivalry and competition, he said.
“Now, there is too much mischief making, extortion and bribery, insufficient accountability on both sides—the unions and the employers,” he said.
Workers need to be able to strike and bargain with their employers, Ritchotte said, adding that while many of the needed reforms can be achieved through legislation, some are dependent on the maturation of unions in Cambodia.