Unions Call For Workplace Protections

Trade unionists are calling on the government to ratify international labor standards that would safeguard paid maternity leave and improve working conditions for women in a country where the vast majority of factory workers are female.

Dozens of members of the Women Union Network gathered outside the ministries of women’s affairs and labor in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to submit petitions appealing to the government to endorse International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on maternity leave and domestic workers.

Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said the petitions contained 857 thumbprints and the signatures of 12 federations.

“We want the Ministry of Labor to respect female workers,” she said. “Male and female workers should be respected in the same way.”

Employment opportunities for women were not hard to find, Ms. Sophorn said, but union members were frequently concerned about losing their positions if they became pregnant.

Thirty-two countries have ratified the ILO’s convention on maternity leave, which says it is unlawful for employers to fire staff members when pregnant or on sick leave, and guarantees women the right to return to the same or an equivalent position at the end of maternity leave.

William Conklin, country director for the U.S.-based labor rights group Solidarity Center, said endorsing the standards would be a step in the right direction for Cambodia’s trade industries.

“It’s not the silver bullet that is going to change everything, but it will make sure that there is law conformity, and then obviously there needs to be an enforcement,” he said.

Women’s Affairs Ministry spokesman Phon Puthborey did not respond to requests for comment. Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached.

Garment factory worker Ung Chanthoeun, 37, said she hoped the adoption of the conventions would force employers to provide more flexibility to pregnant workers.

“For example, if someone’s normal role is ironing, they can’t stand for long hours” once they become pregnant, she said.

(Additional reporting by Sonia Kohlbacher)

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