Unions Plan for Thousands to Join Banned Labor Day March

Thousands of workers will once again defy government orders and march through central Phnom Penh this morning to mark International Labor Day, the president of one of Cambodia’s largest independent labor unions said on Monday.

Late last month, City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey said the plans to march about 3,000 people from near the offices of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) to the National Assembly would not be allowed to go ahead because it would cause traffic chaos. He told the unions to keep their events confined to their offices or any other private address.

cam photo labor day KHMER
Construction workers gather outside the National Assembly in a rally demanding a minimum wage for the sector, in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Licadho)

But Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said on Monday that he and 18 other union leaders were determined to try, convinced they were within their rights to make the march. The route of nearly 3 km will take them along the riverside.

“We won’t be demonstrating; we just want to celebrate Labor Day. But even demonstrating is allowed by law,” he said. “We are union representatives; we understand the law.”

The Law on Peaceful Assembly only requires that the organizers of a public event notify authorities of their plans. It lets those authorities stop those plans only if they fall on certain national holidays—Labor Day is not included—or if they have “clear information” that an event will “cause danger” or might “seriously jeopardize security.”

In the case of a rejection, the authorities and organizers are supposed to “discuss solutions” and, should they fail to find one, let the Interior Ministry make a final decision.

During Labor Day last year the unions were similarly told not to make the nearly identical march. They attempted a modified route anyway, making it to a few hundred meters from the National Assembly before they were blocked by police. Just shy of their target, they decided to carry on their rally where they were.

Mr. Thorn said they would do the same this year.

“If they block us, we will do it at that spot,” he said.

They will be taking with them a petition asking for a higher minimum wage for garment workers, the bulk of the workers the unions represent, Mr. Thorn said last month. They also want amendments to the Trade Union Law, which they say has made it far harder to unionize since its passage last year, and an end to what many NGOs are calling a government crackdown on free speech, he said.

Mr. Measpheakdey said on Monday that the government’s ban on the march still stood. He declined to say what police would do if it went ahead.

“We just hope that they will respect the law and City Hall’s instructions,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak echoed the municipal government’s traffic concerns and accused the organizers of being selfish.

“You think only about your benefit. Why don’t you think about the public interest?” he said.

Between 200 and 300 construction workers marked Labor Day early by rallying in front of the National Assembly for a few hours on Monday morning with their own demands.

“[W]e want to send a message to the government that construction workers also want better working conditions and proper wages,” said Sok Kin, acting president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia, which organized the event.

In their own petition to the assembly they asked for a minimum wage for their sector, faster payouts from the National Social Security Fund, amendments to the Trade Union Law and a government directive holding contractors responsible for work-related problems.

Mr. Kin said contractors in Cambodia’s loosely regulated construction industry far too often shirked their responsibility for accidents and salaries with impunity.

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