National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh has intervened in the cases of two garment factories accused of firing workers for union efforts.
Last Friday, the prince signed off on a letter by Men Sam An, chair of the Assembly’s Labor and Social Affairs Committee, urging Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Ith Sam Heng to “examine and solve the problem according to the law” in the cases of the two factories, Goldfame Enterprises International Knitters Ltd and Cambodia Carton.
A law passed in November forbids factories from firing workers who unionize. But workers at both companies say they have complained repeatedly to the ministry and received no response. On July 8 they took their complaint to Mem Sam An’s committee.
Leaving a seminar Tuesday, Ith Sam Heng said both cases were still being investigated and that the ministry would respond soon to the prince’s request.
Goldfame worker Nhem Nak said he was fired in January after leading three lunch time sessions educating workers about their rights. Workers were forced to work more than 14 hours a day and not given mandated holidays off, he claimed.
In April, the Sa’ang district, Kandal province, factory fired another top organizer, Yun Chantorn, said Jason Judd of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, which helped train both workers. Goldfame, with nearly 4,000 workers, is one of the country’s largest factories.
Nhem Nak, Yun Chanthorn and other workers filed four complaints to the ministry before a provincial labor minister agreed to mediate, Judd said. In May the minister refused to order the rehiring of Nhem Nak or Chan Thorn, Judd said.
Meanwhile, management has used the factory sound system to threaten workers who organize, he said. Nonetheless, up to 150 Goldfame workers have joined Solidarity Center-sponsored training sessions.
Asked about the Goldfame case, Ith Sam Heng said his ministry is still investigating a March strike and riot at the factory in which a warehouse was burned. Several unions competed during the strike for the right to bargain for the workers. “After the fighting, the workers no longer believe the unions,” he said.
But Judd said that Nhem Nak and other workers were training to form an independent union, so the investigation of the riot and fire was “irrelevant.”
In May the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation wrote a letter to Debenhams, a British department store that buys the bulk of Goldfame’s garments, urging the company to pressure Goldfame to follow labor laws.
Nhem Nak said he has also complained to Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh, who has the power to ban exports from outlaw companies.
Goldfame assistant general manager Peter Kwok said Nhem Nak resigned and Yun Chanthorn was fired for making mistakes on the job. He said all overtime by workers was voluntary.
“We welcome workers to join the union,” Kwok said. “It is in our internal rules.”
Nhem Nak, however, said he was told that if he did not sign the resignation letter, he would be fired, and that five relatives who also work at the factory might be fired as well.
Labor leaders at Cambodia Carton charge that the factory fired 19 workers who acted as organizers or joined a May strike. The 70-worker factory, located in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, has offered severance to the workers, said Ros Sok, whose Cambodia Federation of Independent Trade Union represents factory workers. But the offer is inadequate and the workers still want their jobs, Ros Sok said.
“We have complained to Ith Sam Heng, but he is not fully practicing the power of the ministry,” he said.
Judd’s organization estimates that 400 to 500 union leaders have been fired or forced off the job for organizing in the past four years. He said the Goldfame and Cambodia Carton cases were “fundamental tests” of a US-Cambodia agreement in which Cambodia promised to improve conditions in exchange for permission to export more goods to the US.
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