Union Wants Less Strikes, More Talks Free Trade Union Says

Cambodia’s most strike-prone labor union announced Wednes­day it will abandon its policy of aggressive attacks against factory management misdeeds for a more diplomatic approach that it hopes will tame Cambodia’s sometimes unruly labor sector.

The Free Trade Union of Work­ers of the Kingdom of Cam­bodia has drafted an eight-page report aimed, it says, at “reducing the number of strikes by instituting grievance procedures and collective bargaining agreements in factories.”

With the labor climate improving and more media focus on Cambodia’s garment industry, the union said, “the FTUWKC is changing the way that it relates to local stakeholders.”

“The union is not a protest organization anymore,” said George Mcleod, international liaison for the union.

A change in policy is now necessary in Cambodia’s garment industry, he said, as Cambodia faces the end of International Labor Organization monitoring in 2004 and the expiration of US garment quotas in 2005.

Cambodia’s market position will change considerably, as it is forced to compete with other exporters world-wide, which will have access to US markets that is currently restricted.

The Free Trade Union has become known for a high number of wildcat strikes, and has been a high profile participant in labor disputes—many of which have resulted in brawls or vandalized factories.

However, as Cambodia’s garment industry faces increased competition from other countries, the perception of a strike-prone work force could deter investors from moving into a country like Cambodia, Mcleod said.

The union will now put in place, on a factory-by-factory basis, a grievance filing system where workers are encouraged to engage supervisors and management to solve problems before resorting to strikes or demonstrations. The union is also changing its tactics as a way of solving problems without having to go to the government’s Ministry of Labor to mediate disputes, according to the report.

“The Ministry of Labor has not shown noticeable improvement. Therefore, the FTUWKC should initiate negotiations instead of relying on the government to serve this function,” according to the union’s report.

The union will be issuing the report to garment industry leaders today, Mcleod said, including the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.

GMAC President Van Sou Ieng could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, but garment leaders, government officials and factory owners have continually maintained that too many strikes were damaging the reputation of Cambodia and hurting investment in the industry.

Garments are Cambodia’s top export earner, reaching $1.2 billion last year. But while the export growth continues to climb, it hasn’t risen as quickly in recent years.

Industry observers said Wed­nes­day that collective bargaining agreements—or union contracts—can be a way to implement better standards that are easier to enforce because they are negotiated agreements bet­ween factory management and employees.

But some say the dissemination of union contracts may be easier said than done.

Workers remain under-in­form­ed, creating a need for education before the full use of union contracts can be put in place, said An Nan, a legal supervisor for the Cambodian Labor Organization.

“We need to teach more,” he said, adding that the CLO was working with several other unions to develop union contracts.

He said that although union contracts are allowable under the labor law, a factory does not have to agree to them. Nor does a factory have to automatically comply with requests made under the contracts. “We can bargain, but they can deny,” he said.

Because of this, strikes will remain a part of the Free Trade Union arsenal, Mcleod said.

“[But] strikes are a bit like a sword,” he said. “If you use it too much, it gets dull.”

 

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