Talks to Begin Over Controversial Trade Law

The government will host employers and union representatives Wednesday for the first round of consultations on the controversial Trade Union Law, which was shelved in 2011 and would in its current form impose increased restrictions on union registration, give the courts broad power to revoke union licenses and flout international labor conventions signed by Cambodia.

The latest version of the law, which was distributed to unions and employers on Tuesday in advance of Wednedsay’s tripartite meeting, includes an article that would require 20 percent of employees at an enterprise to join a union before it is allowed to register with the Ministry of Labor. In practice, the current Labor Law allows eight employees to form a union.

However, the draft does not include provisions that would allow the Ministry of Labor to suspend or revoke union registration, a measure that has been pushed by employers but vehemently opposed by labor organizations.

The law instead gives a yet-to-be-created labor court the authority to withdraw registration licenses from unions found to be in violation of the law.

The draft law, last revised by the Ministry of Labor on May 6, also ignores a host of suggestions made by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in February, when it was asked by the government to provide technical comments.

In a document signed by Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, director of the ILO’s international labor standards department, the U.N.’s labor body takes issue with 27 of the draft law’s 91 articles, noting numerous potential violations of ILO conventions on the right to associate and organize.

The ILO’s criticism centers on provisions that give collective bargaining rights only to select unions, language that may lead to arbitrary decision-making by authorities and the courts, and overly high thresholds that would curtail the ability of workers to unionize, and of unions to form labor federations.

“In general, a number of provisions contained in the draft seem to regulate in an overly detailed manner the internal functioning of the trade unions, and although they may not be intended to restrict trade union rights as such, their implementation may affect the exercise of such rights and hinder the development of trade unions,” the ILO says in its comments on the law.

But the only substantive changes made to the current draft law are the removal of a provision that would require 50 employees to form a union—replaced by the 20 percent requirement—and the addition of a provision allowing personnel serving in air and maritime transportation to unionize.

Heng Suor, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said that the draft law was only a starting point for discussions between unions and employers.

“The government has tried to facilitate and stand in the middle, so we will wait and listen to both sides,” he said, noting that the 20 percent threshold for union registration would likely be a divisive issue in the consultation.

“If one side says the number is high and another side says the number is low, the government will try to make a determination,” Mr. Suor said.

The government has said it hopes to pass the Trade Union Law through the National Assembly by the end of the year.

Sandra D’Amico, vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, who will join Wednesday’s consultation, said that employers want more authority given to the Ministry of Labor in regulating unions.

The labor court, which will be the main dispute resolution mechanism for labor conflicts under the new law, has yet to be created. Its formation, as a separate chamber within courts of first instance, is a provision in a new judicial law that was passed last week by the National Assembly.

“At the moment…there are a few concerns around the fact that most of the dispute resolution is referred to the labor courts, and we don’t have a labor court,” Ms. D’Amico said.

“Employers feel that the Ministry of Labor should be able to register unions as well as suspend and cancel registration so that processes go smoothly and we are not caught up in a legal system that is not currently meeting expectations.”

Ms. D’Amico added, however, that administrative issues could be ironed out in the consultative process, saying that the existence of the law would bring confidence to employers currently facing a fractured and largely unregulated labor movement.

“One: It’s going to help have a more constructive trade union movement. Two: you are going to have a representative trade union movement. Three: you are going to have a lot less disputes because unions are actually going to be representative,” she said.

However Ath Thorn, president of the country’s largest independent trade union, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that the law opened the door to greater intimidation of trade unions, as it gives courts increased power to suspend or revoke union registrations for a wide range of infractions.

Included in the draft law’s list of violations that may be deemed illegal is the intentional violation of a collective bargaining agreement, the interruption of collective bargaining, “agitat[ing] for purely political purposes or commit[ing] acts of violence at the workplace,” and leadng strikes that do not follow legal procedure.

Tun Sophorn, national coordinator for the ILO, said that Wednesday’s consultation meeting will be attended by 30 representatives of 10 government ministries, 20 representatives from trade unions and at least 15 representatives of employers.

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