Despite unprecedented numbers taking to the streets to demand a better future, union rights continue to take a battering in Cambodia

By Chak Sopheap, published on September issue of Southeast Asia Globe.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recently found Cambodia to be one of the worst countries in the world for labour and union rights. Only countries where the rule of law has completely broken down, such as Somalia and the Central African Republic, managed to trump Cambodia’s terrible ranking.

Chak Sopheap is executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

The garment industry is the Kingdom’s largest export earner, employing more than 475,000 people, but the human rights situation in the industry is appalling. Working conditions are poor and impact heavily on the health of garment workers – in particular, mass fainting is a regular occurrence. Safety standards are not met within factories, workers do not receive liveable wages and there is virtually no job security.

Moreover, Cambodia is increasingly seen as a dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist. Unionists have been faced with continuous harassment and intimidation for attempting to defend their rights and participating in strikes. There has been an emerging trend of the government stalling union registration and issuing public threats to all unions that if they participate in further strikes, they will have their licences revoked. Union members are often fired as a result of their union activities and have recently been targeted in a series of arrests.

Over the past year the situation has continued to deteriorate, with strikes, protests and demonstrations led by trade unions often violently dispersed by state security forces, sometimes using live ammunition. At the start of the year, protests by garment workers turned deadly when at least four workers were killed after soldiers opened fire on the crowds of protestors.

The new generation – one that did not experience the Khmer Rouge regime – is one that is willing to challenge the status quo. It wants change and is willing to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand greater rights and a better future.

That is a scary phenomenon for a government that has gone largely unchallenged for the decades it has been in power. As a result, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has employed extreme measures to suppress dissent. They have even started to employ private, untrained security guards to do their dirty work. While violence on all sides must be condemned, the use of these guards, and the disproportionately excessive force they use against protestors, has been one of the year’s greatest issues. 

But the government isn’t the only player for whom this new generation poses a threat. Powerful and organised unions, who seek to exercise their rights and demand liveable wages and improved standards, are a clear problem for private entities that have come to Cambodia seeking cheap labour. By targeting unions, the government can scare workers into submission, thereby appeasing powerful economic investors.

Worst of all, things could get worse if the impending trade union law is adopted. The government has promised to adopt the law, which includes vaguely worded provisions that will make it even easier for the government to restrict union rights, by the end of this year.

Given the ITUC’s appalling ranking for the country, key players need to ensure that union rights are protected. With the opposition now having taken their seats in the National Assembly after a year of boycott, we must push the government to put in place effective mechanisms that would enable transparent dispute resolution, as well as address key concerns such as the minimum wage. We must also push Members of Parliament to ensure that the draft law on trade unions is made public and that civil society concerns are listened to and addressed. At the same time, unions must be clear in their demands and operate within the law. 

We must also work with the international brands and businesses operating here in Cambodia. They can play an active role in ensuring that the rights to freedom of assembly and association are respected.Despite a complete lack of evidence against the 23 people that were arrested during January’s protests, the international brands buying from Cambodia played a large part in their release, evidencing the reach of their influence. 

The current situation in Cambodia is one where fundamental human rights are repeatedly being stripped away. Only when all stakeholders sit around the same table and cooperate will workers finally be able to enjoy the rights they are entitled to.