About 3,000 workers took part in three separate rallies to mark Labor Day in Phnom Penh on Friday, with the municipal government warning of possible legal action against the leaders of two of the demonstrations, who failed to heed official warnings not to bring workers onto the city’s streets.
More than 1,000 workers rallied outside the National Assembly, hundreds more outside the Labor Ministry and a similar number at Freedom Park—the only location approved by the government—calling for higher wages, better working standards and the scrapping of the controversial draft Trade Union Law.
Despite warnings by City Hall not to take to the streets, a number of the country’s most prominent union leaders led two marches in the morning, one from near the Russian Embassy to the National Assembly, and another from Olympic Stadium to the Ministry of Labor.
Deputy municipal governor Khuon Sreng said that although authorities allowed the marches to go ahead, City Hall would consider taking legal action against the union leaders who defied its orders.
Mr. Sreng noted that union leaders Pav Sina and Far Saly, who led the rally at Freedom Park, had received permission for their event, but said that Vorn Pao and Ath Thorn, union leaders who have previously been hit with legal action, had crossed authorities.
“Vorn Pao did wrong,” Mr. Sreng said. “Ath Thorn made a big mistake. We ordered him directly to Freedom Park and he not respect that.”
“We will implement the legal procedure according to their mistakes,” he added. “Those unions are too small for us to crack down on, but we want to know if they respect [the government] or not.”
The union leaders who led the marches were not the only figures who drew the ire of authorities on Friday.
Rong Chhun, a longtime labor activist who was recently selected by the opposition CNRP as one of nine members of the reformed National Election Committee (NEC), was chided by the CPP for mingling with an opposition lawmaker during the march to the Labor Ministry.
“During the marching activities by unions, we saw the surprise attendance of His Excellency Rong Chhun, a new NEC member, together with a lawmaker from the National Rescue Party [CNRP],” said a statement signed by Suos Yara, a spokesman and lawmaker for the ruling party.
“As spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party, I remind His Excellency Rong Chhun that the nine members of NEC are no longer members of political parties, unions and civil society groups and have to maintain neutrality in order to ensure this high institution brings great benefit for the nation and people,” the statement said.
Mr. Chhun said Mr. Yara’s reminder did not worry him.
“I don’t care about the statement of the CPP spokesman criticizing my participation with unions,” Mr. Chhun said.
“It’s a holiday and I was just observing,” he added. “I was standing on one side and then a lawmaker from the [Cambodia] National Rescue Party saw me and came to shake hands.”
Although there were separate rallies Friday morning, the unions voiced similar demands, with a controversial draft Trade Union Law at the top of their agenda.
“Whether they organized separately or together, their demands were quite similar: the end of impunity, higher wages and the law on trade unions,” said Moeun Tola, the head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, who said he stopped by all three rallies.
A draft of the Trade Union Law was released last year and reviewed by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which said that it fell short of the government’s international obligations to workers.
Among the most controversial aspects are a provision that gives the courts broad power to revoke union licenses and a rule that requires unions to get 20 percent of workers employed at an enterprise to become members before registering with the Labor Ministry.
Sat Samoth, an undersecretary of state at the Labor Ministry, said on Friday that the ministry was still in the process of drafting the law.
“We can’t say anything because it is not finished,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)
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