US Brands Object to Draft Wage, Dispute Settlement Laws

A group representing some of the largest apparel brands in the U.S., including Gap and Levi Strauss, are urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to reconsider controversial provisions in a pair of draft laws on wages and labor disputes.

Local unions have already raised alarms about a draft law that would establish a system for setting a national minimum wage, with proposals to ban wage-related research without prior consent and any efforts to promote opposition to the wage itself.

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Women work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh in August last year. (Charles Fox)

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has also warned of the “serious consequences” of a draft Law on Labor Dispute Adjudication Procedures.

In a June 7 letter to Mr. Hun Sen, the president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Rick Helfenbein, said he understands the need for a minimum wage law.

“However, we are concerned that the draft law seeks to limit research and discussion surrounding the minimum wage to just the workings of the Labor Advisory Council,” he added. He warned that the restrictions “could add significant challenges to an already difficult discussion and limit the information used in this important decision.”

Labor rights groups and local unions say demanding approval to carry out research and banning opposition to the minimum wage would also violate their constitutional rights to free speech.

In his letter, Mr. Helfenbein says the draft dispute adjudication law could also overwhelm the current Arbitration Council by opening it up to individual complaints without supplying the extra resources needed to handle them.

He also faults the draft for letting unions bring cases to the Arbitration Council only if they have “most representative status” at a factory, achieved by counting a large share of the workers as members. Letting only those unions take cases to the council, he says, “would leave many workers without an avenue to resolve their disputes.”

After its own review of the draft, the ILO said the preference for most-representative unions would strip smaller unions of their rights to represent their members and make it impossible for them to even challenge another union’s most-representative status. Since unions must try resolving their disputes through the council before calling for a strike, smaller unions would also be unable to do so.

Neither Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng nor his labor department director, Seng Sakada, could be reached for comment.

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said he had not seen the letter but added that the draft minimum wage law was the product of tripartite workshops. Some unions say they have raised their objections to the draft at those events.

He also faulted their reading of the draft, saying “The tripartite member which is part of negotiation is free to do the research as long as it is about the minimum wage.”

The draft says no one may carry out minimum wage research unless approved by the labor minister or the proposed National Minimum Wage Council. The wage council’s composition would have to be decided by a separate sub-decree and its members determined by the labor minister.

As for dispute adjudication, Mr. Sour said the objective of the law “is to strengthen and empower the Arbitration Council.”

He said the ILO’s own Convention 98 says that most-representative unions have exclusive rights over negotiations involving collective bargaining agreements or resolving collective disputes.

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