In March, the Ministry of Labor for the first time began requiring union leaders to submit proof they had no previous criminal convictions before they would be allowed to register a new union or local branch.
Now, the country’s leading unions say worker representatives are struggling to obtain the complex documentation they need to prove they have clean criminal records, and that the new rule amounts to deliberately blocking the registration of new unions.
The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU) has been unable to register a single new branch with the Labor Ministry this year, despite about 10 attempts, according to its vice president, Kong Athit.
“Now they put more conditions and put more difficulties on us, so it’s difficult to register,” said Ath Thorn, the president of the union. “If we do not have enough documents they delay until we have enough.”
He said he believed the government was deliberately blocking independent unions from setting up new branches with an overly bureaucratic registration process as a response to January’s nationwide garment sector strikes, which turned violent and were lethally suppressed by military police.
“[The reason] why the Ministry of Labor changed [their policy] is because of the general strike in January,” Mr. Thorn said.
Although the 1997 Labor Law stipulates that convicted criminals cannot become union leaders, documentary proof of a clean record was not required until March. To obtain a criminal record letter, worker representatives must now travel to central Phnom Penh to provide the Justice Ministry with an original birth certificate, their family book, and an identity card.
Union leaders say this is difficult for garment factory workers, who don’t always have original documents at hand, and who must get permission from their factory management—who are reluctant to give them the time off to create a labor union—to travel to Phnom Penh.
Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the new procedure is unnecessarily burdensome and is preventing the unions from expanding.
“We have sent out five registration applications for our local unions but the authorities said we do not have enough documents—identity card, family book, birth certificate,” he said.
Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said that since March, 18 unions in his confederation had tried to register new branches, but failed each time due to the new requirements.
“It is difficult for some of the workers who do not have all the documents and for them to show up [at the Ministry of Justice] since they have to ask for the permission from the factory to go,” he said.
“It takes a lot of time and money to apply for the registration of the local union [branch]…it is a struggle for us to get it.”
Mr. Chhun called on the Ministry of Labor to return to the old arrangement, under which unionists self-declared their criminal history and applications did not need the signature of a factory representative.
“The Ministry of Labor is discriminating against unions allegedly opposed to the ministry, the unions that help and protect the worker. It has said we do not have enough documents or have used wrong words and need to review,” he said.
Government officials contacted this week denied they are being deliberately obstructive, saying they are just administering the law.
A member of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana’s cabinet, who asked not to be named, said the process of obtaining a criminal record check, which takes 20 working days, was standard.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng defended the requirement for criminal record letters, saying union representatives could now avoid serious penalties for providing incorrect information.
“To get a criminal record letter from the Ministry of Justice puts less responsibility on them and it is much easier,” he said.
Mr. Sam Heng said the ministry had an obligation to ensure applicants were really factory workers and had a clean criminal record in the face of a growing number of registrations.
“There is no benefit in preventing them [registering],” he said. “Now there are almost 4,000 unions and some factories have more than 10 unions—where have we prevented it? Cambodia is now the haven of the unions.”
(Additional reporting by Holly Robertson)