One of the most powerful labor unions in the US has called on its government to revoke a special trading status for Cambodia over allegations that workers’ rights here are being violated.
In a complaint to US Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations alleged that the Cambodian government has undermined efforts to form independent unions and engage in collective bargaining.
“The US government should immediately withdraw [General System of Preferences] treatment for Cambodian products until the Royal Cambodian government demonstrates through concrete actions that it is prepared to allow a pluralistic and independent labor sector to exist in Cambodia,” the AFL-CIO wrote in the complaint.
According to an AFL-CIO representative in Bangkok, the complaint was submitted on June 15, but the labor union did not publicize its actions until now for fear the move would be used as propaganda in the campaign leading up to the July 26 election.
“Labor has already been made a political football between the CPP and the opposition parties and none of this has helped workers form independent trade unions that really represent members’ interests,” the representative wrote in an e-mail Monday.
Officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veteran Affairs could not be reached for comment Monday.
But government spokesman Khieu Kanharith on Monday said he was unaware of the complaint. He denied any impropriety on the part of the government and said that officials were trying hard to put into effect labor regulations.
Cambodia was awarded GSP status, which gives preferential duty-free status to about 6,200 products, in mid-1997, eight months after receiving Most Favored Nation trade status.
At the time, the granting of GSP was seen as a positive response to the passage earlier that year of a labor law and steps taken by the government to protect intellectual property rights.
But several unions and opposition politician Sam Rainsy have accused the government of failing to implement the labor law, and have demanded at numerous demonstrations that GSP be revoked.
The AFL-CIO complaint alleges the Ministry of Social Affairs has given preferential treatment to CPP-linked unions, making it easier for them to register with the government than independent or opposition-affiliated unions.
It cites incidents at several Phnom Penh garment factories where ministry officials showed bias against independent unions. In one case in March, it alleges that Social Affairs officials interfered in the selection of union representatives at the Gold Kamvimex factory to collectively bargain with management, and then did nothing when 12 union activists were suspended from the factory later that month.
The allegations will be passed to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to investigate, according to the AFL-CIO representative, and a committee in Washington will then decide whether to formally accept the complaint. Possible responses by the US government range from immediately revoking the trade status to reviewing the situation and trying to negotiate improvements with the Cambodian government, the representative said.
A US Embassy representative was not available on Monday for comment.
Although GSP is often hailed as a key factor in Cambodia’s economic growth, the loss of GSP would be felt more politically than economically, said Bit Seanglim, a government economic adviser and head of mission at the Council for the Development of Cambodia.
While in the long run Cambodia’s economy might be able to take advantage of GSP privileges, he said, Cambodia’s fast growing garment sector receives no special benefits under GSP.
“It does affect the name of Cambodia, the standing of Cambodia,” he said. “What it hurts more is the political [fallout]…the name of Cambodia itself because it looks like the union movement is not supported by the government.”