Workers recently struck at a Phnom Penh garment factory because a single sewing machine broke down and an employee was docked a day’s pay. More than 1,000 workers walked out for several hours in solidarity, costing the factory thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
It’s that kind of unnecessary strike that Cambodia’s largest union says it is trying to avoid by launching a drive to draw up collective bargaining agreements—commonly known as union contracts—in the factories where union members work.
Union contracts are common in the West but virtually unknown in Cambodia. George McLeod, international liaison officer for the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said contracts are a next step in the evolution in labor relations.
In the past, labor unions have only negotiated in reaction to labor law violations, resulting in strikes and temporary agreements often forged with the help of government officials, McLeod said.
But collective bargaining agreements establish grievance procedures and mandate regular meetings between employers and workers, so that employees can negotiate problems rather than striking, he said.
They also spell out salary and working conditions that may exceed legal minimums.
“We want to prevent conflict rather than just reacting to every conflict,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to go to the Ministry [of Labor] every time conflict arises.”
Cambodia had more than 80 strikes in its factories last year, a byproduct of poor labor relations. The US, the market for most Cambodian garments, says better labor relations will lead it to raise its import quota.
Labor experts warned that successful union contracts will require strong organizational skills by unions and stable relations with management.
“It will be a learning process…but they can start with the basic issues,” said Hugo van Noord, a technical adviser with the UN International Labor Organization.
The effort was also welcomed by the country’s major apparel factory owner association. “Any method to get good relations with employees would be well entertained,” said Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia.
The Free Trade Union is the official union at 45 factories and has 20,000 members.