Union leaders on Tuesday complained of facing new hurdles in registering local branches and in representing workers since a controversial trade union law took effect six months ago.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that since the law was enacted, the Labor Ministry has required prospective union branch leaders to submit copies of their work permits and that factory managers were sometimes refusing to release them.
“When the workers go to ask the factory for the work permits they are refused, or sometimes they are told they have been lost,” he said.
He and other union leaders attended a workshop in Phnom Penh organized by the Community Legal Education Center, a local NGO, and the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, to assess the half-year since the union law took effect.
Mr. Sina said that over the past six months, the Labor Ministry has also started preventing unions from taking on the complaints of non-members.
“Before the trade union law was passed, we had full rights to receive complaints from workers even if they were not our members. Now they must be our members before we can represent them in negotiations with a factory,” he said.
The new law allows a union to advocate for a non-member if it has “most representative status” at that factory. But to get that, the union must convince at least 30 percent of the workers at the factory to join.
Leaders from two other unions said they were facing the same obstacles.
“There were 10 cases we submitted to the Labor Ministry, but they refused to take action because we had no right to represent the workers,” said Ek Pheakdey, secretary-general of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
Contacted after the workshop, Solidarity Center country director William Conklin said the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions that Cambodia has agreed to stipulate that unions be allowed to help non-members. Going forward, he said, the new law’s block on representation for non-union members “could be a very big problem.”
As for the work permits, Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the unions were simply mistaken about the rules.
“I think they are confused,” he said. “Work permits and work books are not involved in forming a union.”
The new law does not itself stipulate that prospective union branch leaders submit copies of their work permits. However, it says the rules on how to register will be spelled out in a separate prakas, or proclamation.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor could not be reached for comment.
Rights groups say the union law fails to live up to Cambodia’s obligations under ILO conventions on several counts. The U.S. recently urged the government to revise the law, but a spokesman for the ruling CPP said it had little interest in doing so.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)