Unions Warn of Strikes Over Gov’t Rejection of New Branches

A group of eight trade unions Thursday said the government has turned down every one of their applications to form local branches at the country’s garment factories since early last year and threatened mass strikes if the rejections continue.

At a press conference in Phnom Penh, union representatives said they had submitted a total of 103 applications for local branches since mass garment worker protests for higher wages were suppressed on January 3, 2014, when military police opened fire, killing at least five and wounding more than 40. Having managed to get applications approved in previous years, they said, not one has passed the Labor Ministry since.

“The Ministry of Labor is listening to the employers because they don’t want to have too many unions in the factories because they will lead protests and strikes to help the workers,” said Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

Mr. Sina said his union has had all 12 of its applications turned down.

The factories often complain that the garment industry has too many unions, making it hard to settle labor disputes, and want thresholds raised for how many workers are required to start a union. The Labor Ministry is in the process of writing a new Trade Union Law that might address the issue, but in May the International Labor Organization said the latest draft was overly restrictive on unions and was out of step with international conventions to which Cambodia is a signatory.

Ath Thorn, who heads the largest independent union in the country, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that previously he could get 10 to 15 branches approved a year but saw all 20 of his applications rejected in 2014. He blamed the blockage on the Labor Ministry applying overly restrictive and complicated new rules that, for one, require the proposed heads of a local branch to submit police records obtained from the Justice Ministry.

He said the documents cost 34,000 riel (about $8.50), take about 20 days to process, and require the applicant to submit an identity card and birth certificate.

“But some of our people don’t have these documents…. If we don’t have them, we can’t create [the branch],” he said.

Mr. Thorn said even the smallest typo can get an application sent back for corrections over and over, stalling the process for months.

“When the ministry doesn’t want us to get registered and the company sends a letter to oppose it, a small mistake means we can’t get registered,” he said.

Seng Sakada, general director of the Labor Ministry’s labor department, declined to speak with a reporter. A spokesman for the ministry could not be reached.

The Labor Law does require union leaders to have a clean criminal record.

But Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said that holding branch heads to the same rule effectively breached the constitutional right of all citizens to create and join an association.

Keng Chhenglang, deputy president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, said some of their visits to factories over the past year to try to unionize workers had even been met with stick-wielding thugs.

Mr. Thorn said the unions would give the Labor Ministry a few months to unblock the application process before deciding what action to take next, adding that strikes and protests were both on the table.

“We will give them until June, and if there is no answer we will call a meeting of the unions and we will decide what approach to use,” he said.

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Correction: A previous version of this story said the Ministry of Labor is drafting a new Labor Law. The ministry is drafting a new Trade Union Law.

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