US Officials Talk Labor Conditions

Cambodian labor law guarantees workers the right to reach collective bargaining agreements with management.

But workers here aren’t sure what collective bargaining means—­so they frequently go on strike over issues that should be resolved over a bargaining table.

That was one of the points a US delegation made this week to Cam­bodian labor and commerce officials: the government needs to issue regulations explaining how collective bargaining should work.

Sandra Polaski, special representative for international labor affairs at the US State Department, said she was heartened by the government’s response.

“The meetings went very well, beyond my expectations,” she said. “We came very quickly to a mutual understanding of what should happen next.”

Polaski and US labor officials were in Phnom Penh for the biannual labor consultations required under the bilateral textile agreement that sets the garment quota.

The textile agreement, which expires at the end of this year but will probably be renewed, links the amount of textiles Cambodia can export to the US to improvements in labor conditions here.

This week’s meetings did not address the quota for 2001, which was set last December. Any future quota increase will be addressed later this year, when the details of a new agreement are worked out.

These meetings focused on how to better implement what Polaski called Cambodia’s “very sound labor law, which was written and designed to work well for the long term.”

She said both governments want to improve conditions for workers and that Cambodia has made real progress in implementing the law, but much remains to be done due to a lack of money and trained personnel.

“Things are very ad hoc now, and people aren’t happy—not the workers, or the government, or the employers,” she said.

At the same time, she said, implementing a “very sophisticated” law like this “would take a while in a country with much stronger institutions.”

The situation regarding collective bargaining is a case in point. In Western nations, labor law spells out how contracts are to be negotiated, including the rights of unions and the rights of management.

Issues such as rates of pay and overtime, hiring, firing and working conditions are negotiated in each contract between management and the unions representing the workers.

In Cambodia, Western-style contracts are virtually unknown, so when a dispute arises on something like overtime pay, workers strike and both sides lose time and money.

To avoid such costly disruptions, Cambodia needs to create both a labor court and an arbitration council, where such matters could be resolved without work stoppages.

She said another problem with collective bargaining here is that as many as seven unions may claim members in a specific factory, and there are no rules for determining which union gets to represent members at the bargaining table.

Polaski said government officials agreed with the US observations, and said they would move quickly to set up the necessary regulations.

The final area of discussion involved better enforcement of the labor law, which states the Ministry of Labor can investigate allegations of wrongdoing, and fine or even jail managers deemed guilty—but it virtually never happens.

A recent dispute at the MPP Co Ltd, makers of Ozone bottled water, is an example. Six months ago the company fired a group of workers who created a union, and has so far ignored an order from the Ministry of Labor to hire them back. The matter is in court.

The government did create an interministerial committee to enforce the labor law last year, but it lacks real enforcement powers and has not been very active.

Polaski said that within a month, the International Labor Organization’s monitoring project will be up and running, which means neutral observers will be going into factories and documenting violations.

“If serious non-compliance is found by the ILO, the Ministry of Labor must enforce the law,” she said. The Ministry of Commerce also has the power to withhold export licenses for factories not in compliance—a powerful tool that sends a strong message to manufacturers.

“We expect that when the ILO begins to monitor factories, compliance will improve,” she said. “It is a positive message to say that the law will be enforced.”


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