Unions, GMAC Streamline Dispute Resolutions

After mass strikes swept the garment sector this month, labor unions yesterday signed an agreement with industry representatives to prevent strikes by simplifying the resolution of labor disputes.

The agreement, which is to come into effect on Jan 1, spelled out nine principles that both sides hoped would reduce the number of labor disputes, according to a copy of the agreement.

The outlines of the agreement were settled upon in March and were not a response this month’s work stoppages. However, the accord struck yesterday showed that key players in the industry were able to achieve some consensus despite recent acrimony.

Finalized in Phnom Penh, the agreement was signed by Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia President Van Sou Ieng and the heads of all of Cambodia’s major labor confederations. Ken Loo, GMAC secretary-general, said the agreement was aimed at promoting collective bargaining.

“I think it’s a significant change,” he said.

Ath Thon, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation and leader of this month’s strikes, said the agreement would benefit the entire industry.

“It will bring benefits for both parties, employers and employees, and make the garment industry more mature,” he said.

The agreement was put together under the guidance of the International Labor Organization. John Ritchotte, a labor relations specialist with the ILO’s Bangkok office, praised both parties for putting aside their differences.

“It is the unions and GMAC who reached this agreement…and had in mind the greater good of the industry and the country,” he said.

Under the terms of the new arrangement, disputes arising when one party feels it has been denied something guaranteed by law—such as wages or benefits—would be subject to a shorter dispute resolution process. Arbitration conducted in such cases would be binding, and no strikes or lockouts would be permissible during the process.

Disputes over issues that are not currently part of the country’s labor law, such as raising the minimum wage or securing additional benefits, are not covered under the new agreement.

Vong Sovann, a signatory and president of the CPP-aligned Cambodia Confederation of Trade Unions, said he thought the agreement would allow disputes to be solved peacefully.

“I believe this agreement will alleviate hurdles and barriers, including illegal strikes,” he said.

However, Rong Chhun, leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said the agreement would have to be strictly enforced in order to be of any benefit.

“This agreement is only on paper. So if there is not tight implementation, it would cause problems,” he said. “It doesn’t really give benefit to the workers, but we should have this agreement rather than not have it.”

The signatories are to meet four times each year to review and monitor the implementation of the agreement. It can be canceled if one party feels the other has violated the agreement to the extent that it can no longer be maintained, but it is guaranteed to be in effect for at least one year.

Huon Soeu, deputy director of the labor dispute department at the Labor Ministry, said he hoped the new agreement would bring down the number of industrial disputes.

“It is a good mechanism. Day to day, I hope both parties will understand each other and follow the law, letting them work smoothly together and leading them to reduce disputes,” he said.

Five of the six union signatories were also selected to represent employees at the working group tasked with benefit negotiations.

The union representatives will be Mr Thon, Mr Chhun and Mr Sovann, along with Coalition of National Construction Federations President Morm Nhim and National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia President Som Aum.

Mr Thon said he hoped the working group would not only solve the issue of worker benefits but also allow the parties to find a way to end the legal action employers have pursued against factory-level union representatives.

“Typically, we have to take some time solving this problem. I believe that we will go to the negotiating table and find a solution,” he said.

Mr Sovann said he was pleased to see all of the country’s union confederations negotiating together.

“I hope that we will receive what we do as a team,” he said.

He said he expected the parties to reach an agreement before the end of the year and have it implemented in early 2011.

However, Mr Chhun said he felt establishing the working group was just a delaying tactic on the part of employers and the government.

“This is a strategy of the government and employers to retreat and delay…. The creation of this working group is just a way to lure union representatives,” he said.

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