Unions’ Plan to March on Labor Day Rebuffed by City Hall

The president of one of Cambodia’s largest independent labor unions said on Sunday that about 3,000 protesters would gather and march through the capital for International Labor Day on May 1, a move that could spark hostilities with City Hall, which said the march would not be permitted.

The announcement came as a group of CPP-aligned unions met with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday morning at Koh Pich in Phnom Penh. The event was billed as an early celebration of the 131st anniversary of Labor Day, according to an update posted to Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng’s Facebook page.

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Union leader Ath Thorn during a rally for a higher minimum wage at the Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh in 2015 (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In attendance were unionists, teachers and civil servants totaling about 3,500 people, all of whom were wearing CPP T-shirts and caps. The focus of the meeting was “peace, jobs, business and development,” according to the Facebook post.

The meeting was closed to reporters, and Som Aun, leader of the CPP-aligned National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia, who was in attendance, declined to comment on what was discussed.

Meanwhile, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said a cohort of independent unions plan to rally about 3,000 workers next week in the vicinity of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) building near Wat Phnom, before marching to the National Assembly to submit a petition.

“There are two purposes,” Mr. Thorn said. “First, to celebrate the 131st anniversary of International Labor Day. Second is to submit our petition, demanding the government solve issues that are happening in Cambodia.”

Mr. Thorn said he wanted to advocate for increasing the minimum wage for workers, reversing the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression and amending the controversial Trade Union Law.

Protests and violence rocked the law’s passage last year as critics admonished it for preventing people with criminal records from leading unions, for failing to establish independent courts for labor issues and for lacking safeguards to stop union leaders from working for employers or the government.

International organizations and rights groups said the law was unconstitutional and violated international labor conventions to which the government had agreed.

Mr. Thorn said he submitted a letter to City Hall on April 10 informing officials of the march, but had yet to receive a response.

“Right now, we are ready to do it,” Mr. Thorn said. “Even if they allow or don’t allow [it], we will do it according to the plan.”

City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey said on Sunday that protesters were barred both from gathering near the CDC building and from marching through the streets to the National Assembly. The protesters could only gather at their headquarters or in a private place, he said.

“If they do not respect the law and are still adamant to do it, they must be responsible for themselves. For example, if they steal someone’s motorbike and know it is illegal, they must be responsible to the law,” he said.

Mr. Measpheakdey added that City Hall had prepared a letter to send to Mr. Thorn last week informing him of City Hall’s decision. He said he was not sure if it had been delivered.

“The big problem is thousands of people marching along the street to the National Assembly,” said Mr. Measphea­kdey. “Did they think about the traffic jam?”

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