Chuon Seakleng, a widow with four children, was fired from her job at the Grace Sun Cambodia Garment Ltd factory in Chak Angre Leu six months ago.
She said Monday she wasn’t fired because she was a bad or lazy worker, but because she was an activist with the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
“I just fought for fair treatment for the workers, to force the management to abide by Cambodian labor law,” she said at a news conference at the Juliana Hotel. “I was exercising my right to free association.”
Chuon Seakleng scraped by for a few months on savings, but today her children have been sent away to live in her home village with relatives. She is no longer able to pay rent and can barely afford food.
Her desire for justice gives her the strength to persevere, she said. “We want our jobs back, and we want fair treatment for union leaders and for workers,” she said.
Chuon Seakleng was one of six union activists who told their stories Monday on the eve of today’s International Labor Day holiday, celebrated throughout most of the world. To mark the day here, garment workers plan to rally in the morning near the National Assembly for a shorter work week.
Though the details differed, all six said they had been fired by factory managers oblivious to or defiant of Cambodian labor law. Company officials could not be reached for comment.
The news conference was jointly sponsored by the Cambodian Labor Organization and the Labor Law Project of Legal Aid of Cambodia to draw attention to the alleged refusal of some employers to obey the law.
The activists are pursuing their cases in municipal court, but say there has been little response from the judges.
That’s one reason labor organizations are urging the government to better use the newly established Joint Committee on the Enforcement of the Labor Law.
The committee, comprised of officials from the ministries of Commerce and Labor, is empowered to solve small disputes and pursue legal action in serious cases involving child or forced labor.
Critics say the committee has done little so far but refer knotty disputes to other venues whenever possible, while delaying action on matters it cannot refer.
The union workers who spoke Monday made it clear they need a forum to resolve their grievances and to protect rights spelled out in Cambodian law.
Ok Bunneath, who formed a company-wide union at the MPP Co Ltd, which purifies Ozone brand bottled water, said he was fired the day after the union was created, along with 70 other employees who supported it.
He brandished a letter to his employer from Ith Sam Heng, Minister of Labor, explaining that organizing a union is protected under Cambodian labor law and that he must be rehired. He hasn’t been, he said.
Um Visal, a member of the Federation of Cambodian Industrial Garment Workers, said seven employees at his Kompong Speu factory were fired for union activities—and three of them were illegally detained by police overnight at management’s request.
Similar stories were told by Chay Sophea, a member of the Cambodia Union Labor Federation, fired from the Pak Shun Knitting Factory Ltd; Rean Vichet, who formed a company-wide union at the Bu Min Cambodia Garment Co Ltd; and Chuon Theara, a member of the Federation of Cambodian Industrial Garment workers.
Union organizers said the news conference was just one in a series of events planned this year to illustrate what the government must do to protect workers’ rights.