As Free Trade Union (FTU) officials were putting together a list of demands for striking workers at a factory in Kompong Speu province on Tuesday, the union’s president, Chea Mony, was in Kampot province inspecting a plot of land for a Chinese firm looking to set up a factory of its own.
Mr. Mony, who took over as president of the country’s best-known union following the assassination of his brother, Chea Vichea, in 2004, has drifted from the spotlight in recent years as a legion of new unions has risen.
Now, Mr. Mony says he is splitting his time between running the FTU and brokering land deals for foreign investors who could eventually employ the workers he is charged with protecting.
“It’s mostly Chinese businessmen that I help,” Mr. Mony said in an interview Wednesday. “They buy land in Kampot, Battambang, Kompong Speu, 40 hectares in Kandal—this is a lucky period for me. Looking for land is like being on holiday.”
“Now, I spend about 30 percent of my time doing [FTU] work,” he added.
Mr. Mony said he had been dabbling in land brokerage since 2011—completing seven deals on a 3 per-commission—but it had become his primary focus in recent months with a surge in interest from China.
The union leader said that his connections in the garment sector naturally led him to become involved in the very first stage of a producer’s operation, and that his experience in the industry made him the ideal candidate to introduce foreign firms to the Cambodian market.
“Chinese, they ask me which locations have cheaper land, how to build a garment factory, how many people in the area will need work,” he said. “They see that I am a person who understands the situation.”
After more than 10 years leading what was the first major movement of workers in post-war Cambodia, Mr. Mony said that the job had become a “headache” and that his deputies, Man Seng Hak and Sai Sok Ny, were more than capable of operating the FTU in his absence.
He also said that all FTU members were aware of his personal business and dismissed suggestions that a conflict of interest could arise if employees working for a factory that Mr. Mony had brokered a deal for called in his union to mediate a dispute.
“I would tell [management]: ‘I am already finished with you. This is the workers asking for help, so I will lead them,’” he said.
In the years following the death of Chea Vichea, a number of his understudies split ranks and began their own unions.
In a series of interviews late last year, three former FTU officials—Far Saly, Yaing Sophorn and Pav Sina—explained how the union had devolved from being the leader of the labor movement to a corrupted tool used by Mr. Mony and his closest associates to line their own pockets.
In an interview Wednesday, Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said Mr. Mony remained mostly inactive within the labor movement and that his new venture was “dangerous.”
“If it is true, he would have to be very careful in how he acts as a union leader,” Mr. Tola said. “If he acts only in his own interests, he could be violating his own union laws and betraying his members.”
While unions attracting foreign investment is positive if done with transparency, he said, Mr. Mony was walking a fine line between being a source of information and using his position at the FTU as a selling point to potential investors.
“Unions can give advice in laws and regulations, but he should not collaborate with businesses beyond that in a dirty way,” Mr. Tola said. “They cannot tell the factory that they will unionize the factory and no other unions would be allowed in. And they have to be transparent with their members.”
While the FTU officials at its Phnom Penh office said they were well aware of Mr. Mony’s personal venture, Sar Chan Thou, an FTU official in Kompong Speu province, said he was not.
“I did not know he’s a land dealer or [involved in] any other business,” Mr. Chan Thou said of Mr. Mony. “Even though he is busy with his personal work, he still finds time to solve problems for workers.”
Mr. Mony’s assistant, Mr. Seng Hak, also said that the absence of the union leader had not dented the FTU’s influence.
“He doesn’t come to the office so often, but even though there is no Chea Mony, the FTU is still strong,” he said. “Chea Mony is still president.”
‘More Like a Broker’
When garment workers and their unions are fighting for improved working conditions—new negotiations to increase the minimum wage are set to begin this month—the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia often steps in for employers.
The group’s secretary-general, Ken Loo, said Tuesday that the potential for close relationships between union leaders and factory owners is a positive sign in a sector that has been fraught with illegal strikes and violent protests.
Trade unions, he said, are supposed to work hand in hand with employers.
“The public opinion here is that if unions are seen to cooperate with management, they must be corrupt or in cahoots,” he said. “This concept is fundamentally flawed. I don’t know where it comes from.”
Mr. Loo defended Mr. Mony and the FTU against the nagging allegation that they are not as active as other unions, saying that they were just as vigorous as others but did so in a more “reasonable and responsible” fashion.
“GMAC can definitely see that the FTU makes efforts to negotiate, go through arbitration, not strike by first means. They are one of few unions that do this and it is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Mr. Loo also brushed off the notion of a future conflict of interest for Mr. Mony.
“He is not the landlord. He doesn’t rent [properties]. He is more like a broker. Once the deal is done, down the road, if the FTU becomes involved with the workers, it won’t affect anything,” Mr. Loo said.
While Mr. Mony’s focus is now on bringing international firms to build factories in Cambodia, he said the workers would always take priority if his two interests did collide.
For now, though, he will spend his time where the money is.
“It depends on the demand from people looking for land,” Mr. Mony said. “If I have free time, I will go back to work.”