Unions Want Arbitration Council Deal Renewed

Trade unions at either end of the political divide Wednesday said they were eager to renew their agreement with garment factories to abide by the rulings of the country’s Arbitration Council, with some changes, despite a new report showing that both unions and employers often failed to stick to the deal.

However, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC)—which represents the country’s more than 400 exporting garment factories—was non-committal at a Phnom Penh roundtable meeting on the deal that occasionally grew heated.

GMAC and eight of the country’s union federations and confederations in October 2012 signed the two-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in a bid to reduce work stoppages due to strikes. The unions agreed to strike only as a last resort, and never during the arbitration process, in return for a promise from the factories to comply with whatever decisions the Arbitration Council—whose decisions are not legally binding—hands down.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the Arbitration Council Foundation, which monitors the Arbitration Council’s work, said that of the 204 disputes covered by the MoU and handled by the council from October 2012 to the end of last month, unions went on strike first on 54 occasions, each time breaking the agreement. Of the 92 cases in which the council ruled in favor of workers, the report adds, factories failed to abide by the ruling on 30 occasions.

Despite the frequent breaches, unions roundly agreed that the MoU should be renewed when it expires in October.

“It has helped the compliance with the law,” said Mann Seng Hak, a leader of the Free Trade Union (FTU), which has historic ties to the political opposition.

“Without this MoU, things would have gotten worse, it would have gotten messier,” agreed Chuon Mom Thol, president of the CPP-aligned Cambodia Confederation of Trade Unions.

But GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng said he was not convinced.

“It’s true the MoU has helped, but I’m not so sure yet because [in the] last few months we have a lot of strikes,” he said. “If this MoU is not beneficial we should not sign.”

Mr. Sou Ieng said it also seemed somewhat unfair that the MoU was making the factories go above and beyond the law when the unions were merely being asked to follow it.

“We just ask you to comply with the law…and in exchange the employer gives up something. Maybe one day you should wake up and say: ‘I comply with the law, no need for [an] MoU any more,’” he said. “Should we extend the MoU and create a precedent just to ask trade unions to comply with the law?… It’s a bit ridiculous, but it happens that way.”

Unions say the factories often break the law themselves by trying to stop unions from setting up local branches and refusing to respect collective bargaining rights.

Speaking to David Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based group that advocates for trade unions, Mr. Sou Ieng said he also believed that debate over the MoU should stay private and not turn into a “public forum.”

Mr. Welsh said he was not sure what the GMAC chairman was referring to, but added that he stood by everything he had said about the deal in public.

“You are creating a bad feeling here,” Mr. Sou Ieng replied. “I feel that it [is] becoming a public sanction…. If that is what it’s becoming, I feel I will have to leave.”

The chairman ended up staying, and later added that he would try to convince his fellow GMAC members to renew the MoU.

“I personally believe the MoU is good for the industry, so I will try to convince my members,” he said. “I have to show this MoU has brought a lot of trade unions to comply [with] the law and know the law.”

The factories and unions agreed that the absence of a meaningful way to enforce the MoU was one of its critical flaws. The unions suggested including punitive measures for breaking the deal in the next draft.

“There should be discussion of penalties,” Mr. Seng Hak of the FTU said. “What if the factory fails to honor it, and what if the unions fail? There is no clear answer to this…. There should be a provision that says: ‘If any of the parties fail to follow the decision…they should be penalized.”

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo said he was open to the idea.

“In theory it’s good, yes, if it cuts both ways,” he said.

Chhieu Veyara, a project coordinator for the International Labor Organization, said of the seven factories he had recently worked with, neither the factory managers nor the local union representatives at any of them had even heard of the MoU, let alone studied it. He said both sides needed to do more to educate their members about the deal.

Mr. Veyara said a draft of the next MoU should be ready in September, a month before the current deal expires.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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