The U.S. is continuing to urge the government to change and clarify key parts of a controversial trade union law that took effect in April, including an amendment to cover civil servants, the U.S.’s international labor affairs representative said on Tuesday.
Sarah Fox, who was in Cambodia this week meeting with government officials and representatives of employers and employees, said the U.S. remained troubled by the law’s failure to comply with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions signed by Cambodia.
“[T]here are some provisions of this law that continue to raise concerns with regard to obligations under international law,” she told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“There are issues that remain with regard to exclusion of certain categories of workers, public servants notably, who aren’t covered by the law in terms of having rights to form unions,” she said.
“There are concerns that some of the provisions are overly interfering…in the internal operations of the unions. Under international labor standards, it’s important that trade unions be allowed to organize their own affairs, and some of the provisions relating to rules about meetings, how they have to conduct their meetings, rules about strike ballots, etc., have raised concerns.”
Ms. Fox said that expanding the scope of the law, which currently focuses on the country’s heavily unionized garment sector, would likely take an amendment, and that concerns about vague provisions might be addressed with additional implementing regulations.
But the labor envoy would not make predictions on the prospects of convincing the government to follow through with reform.
“[W]here there’s a will, I guess, to make changes it could be done. But I think they’re in a process right now of assessment, and we are providing our input, as are many others. So I think it remains to be seen,” she said.
The ILO itself is sending a special mission to Cambodia in February to assess the country’s compliance with its conventions and will have an expert committee take another look at the union law next month. ILO country director Maurizio Bussi said they would release their findings early next year.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor and CPP lawmaker Pen Panha, who led the union law through the National Assembly, could not be reached for comment.
CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sok Eysan expressed little appetite for changing the law, which had gone through numerous drafts and several rounds of consultation over many years.
“The government has passed the trade union law and we knew it would not satisfy everyone,” he said. “We can see that many people want to modify the law and give their opinions, but are they thinking about the workers’ benefit?”
As for the prospects of including civil servants, Mr. Eysan said state employees already had the benefit of rules on association. The union law, however, gives employees several added powers, including the right to strike.
Ms. Fox’s visit comes days after the government decided to raise the minimum wage for the garment industry, the country’s largest private sector employer, from $140 to $153 a month.
Though the boost fell far short of the $171 asked for by the industry’s largest independent unions, the ILO has raised concerns that years of rising wages and falling prices paid by international brands for their orders were squeezing the profit margins of local factory owners.
Ms. Fox said it was important for Cambodia’s factories to compete on more than low labor costs alone.
“I don’t think a country like Cambodia—and, again, I’m expressing a personal opinion here—but that you can’t compete just by being a low-wage country, that it’s a globalized industry and that there are other countries where wages are lower…. [Y]ou have to find a way to compete that is also about your productivity, your skills, and the value that you bring,” she said. “And I think that Cambodia is well positioned to do that.”
If Cambodia’s garment workers are to keep receiving annual wage raises, the ILO has stressed the need for international brands to stem the fall in the prices they pay the country’s factories. Ms. Fox emphasized the role that overseas consumers played in making that happen.
“If the consumers are saying ‘This is what we want,’ then brands will be willing to pay a higher price for getting that,” she said. “I think there is a growing recognition by consumers.”
U.S. imports of Cambodian garments have been falling over the past few years, while imports by E.U. countries, which on average pay more, have been on the rise. Unlike the U.S., the E.U. grants Cambodian garment exports duty-free access.
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)