Unions Hope Federation Improves Bargaining

Two groups of unions have proposed uniting distinct laborers under one federation to strengthen the bargaining powers of work­ers, union officials said.

Some union officials, however, believe the federation would be a mere vehicle for political gain.

The National Labor Advisory Committee has proposed creating the Cambodian Confeder­ation Trade Union, an umbrella organization for food and textile workers, among others, said com­­mittee member Chuon Mom­thol.

The Confederation would provide legal services to unions and collectively lobby employers and the government to uphold the la­bor law, he said on Monday.

“The unions don’t listen to each other now. We want to put them together, so when we have a problem that can’t be solved at the factory level, the confederation will have a massive strike,” he said.

Chuon Momthol, who serves as the pro-CPP Cambodian Un­ion Federation president, said the Confederation would be nonpartisan. But Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of Work­ers of the Kingdom of Cam­bodia, accused Chuon Mom­thol, and the Advisory Commit­tee, of using the Confed­eration to strengthen CPP grassroots support.

“They just want to take our workers’ power to support the CPP,” he said. “When you involve them, no one but the CPP can be elected to represent.”

Although the Free Trade Un­ion sits on the Advisory Commit­tee—a council of employers, un­ions and government officials that opines on proposed labor law amendments and textile industry problems—Chea Vichea alleges the government manipulates it.

Three of the Advisory Commit­tee’s five representative unions are aligned with, or supported by, the ruling party. A ma­jority vote determines the unions’ platform and generally coincides with the government’s agenda, said Chea Vichea, an ardent Sam Rainsy Party supporter.

He said he would not join the Confederation spearheaded by Choun Momthol but would welcome the formation of an organization that is independent. Chhorn Sokha, president of the Cambod­ian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union, also suggested forming a federation autonomous from the government. An Nan, who advises CCAWDU, said the federation would be an alternative to the CPP unions now accepted as lobbying agents by the Mini­stry of Social Affairs and Labor.

In time, Chhorn Sokha said, the federation could evolve from a labor watchdog into an agent for social and political change.

“We don’t have enough strength now, so if we gather we will be strong,” she said.

Cambodian Independent Tea­chers’ Association President Rong Chhun, another opposition party supporter, said he would support the movement, but suggested unions join the already existing Cambodian Watchdog Coalition.

The Coalition of students, teachers, textile workers and farmers openly criticizes the government and has called for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation.

Labor Ministry Inspections Chief In Khemara said Monday that the ministry does not favor CPP unions. He did not say if the government would welcome or work with a new federation, saying only that the group must meet several criteria to be recognized.

The strength of unions has grown considerably since Cam­bodia signed a bilateral textile agreement with the US in 1998, securing increased US buyers in exchange for improved labor stand­ards. Emboldened by US support, unions became problematic for garment manufacturers for staging costly wildcat strikes. Only recently have more active unions prioritized peaceful bargaining over protest.

David Van of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia regarded the proposed federations with hesitation on Sunday.

He said unions should learn to control their members before forming federations.

“A massive federation can mean a massive mess,” Van said.

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