Bussiness & Economy Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Death by Association

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.

Bussiness & Economy Enviromnment Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Boeng Kak Investor Dismisses Ethics in Name of Business

(This is a letter to editor, published on July 1st, 2014. “Reprinted with the permission of The CAMBODIA DAILY.”)

On June 25, the private firm buying 1.35 hectares in Phnom Penh’s contentious Boeng Kak lake neighborhood claimed, incredibly, to have no knowledge of the site’s internationally recognized land dispute (“Firm Buying Boeng Kak Land Claims No Knowledge of Evictions,” June 26).

D’Lotus Development, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based firm HLH Group, is buying the land from Shukaku Inc., which in 2007 won a 99-year lease to 133 hectares of the Boeng Kak lake area in central Phnom Penh. About 3,000 families have now been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the firm’s development project.

HLH Group’s CEO and executive deputy chairman, Johnny Ong Bee Haut, who denied knowledge of the land dispute in an interview, has been working in Cambodia for the past six years. It is extremely hard to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Ong would have been able to remain ignorant of such a high profile and controversial land dispute.

The international response to the case of Boeng Kak Lake has been remarkable. In 2010, the World Bank stated it would suspend funding to Cambodia until the Boeng Kak conflict had been resolved. The numerous high-profile protests that have followed the evictions, which have been violently suppressed by the authorities, have been widely reported by local and international media.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that in all contexts, business enterprises should “comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate.”

Shukaku has clearly violated residents’ land rights by acquiring land while residents claimed possession rights, filling the lake with sand, and causing serious flooding and damage to many homes.

It is clear that if HLH Group completes the purchase, it would be complicit with the contraventions of Cambodian law and the long list of rights violations that Shukaku has committed. Even if by some miracle Mr. Ong had managed to remain ignorant of the dispute during his six years in Cambodia, he and the rest of HLH Group had a responsibility to have known before agreeing to purchase the land. It is clear that HLH Group is dismissing ethics in the name of business.

Chak Sopheap, executive director, Cambodian Center for Human Rights

Bussiness & Economy Clogher Gender

Cambodian Women and the Economy

Cambodian Women and the Economy – Bertelsmann Future Challenges.


Cambodian Women and the Economy

A traditional Khmer saying  “sartrey bangvil cheung kran min chum”, meaning  women cannot do anything besides moving around the kitchen,  seems no longer valid in contemporary Cambodian society, at least to a larger extent.

A quick glance at some figures can show why this is so: around 65 percent of a  total of 505,134 establishments recorded in the 2011 Cambodia Economic Census by the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) are represented by women – are female-headed in other words – while some 60 percent of persons engaged therein are female – equivalent to roughly one million women.

The saying becomes even less applicable when we look at at the employment figures in the textile and garment industry which has been a major growth driver of the Cambodian economy for more than a decade now. Official statistics of the Ministry of Commerce show that around 90 percent of labor in the textile and garment industry in Cambodia is female, equal to almost 304,000 women as of April 2012. This explicitly stresses the significant contribution Cambodian women make to the country’s economic development.

Women sellers at a provincial market of<br /><br />
Cambodia (Photo by the author (CC BY-ND 2.0))

According to an analysis in the 2007 report “Cambodia’s Garment Industry Post-ATC—Human Development Impact Assessment” of the Economic Institute of Cambodia, every direct job created by the textile and garment industry indirectly creates another job in other sectors – especially in the local trade (in agriculture products, food and clothing) and transportation sectors. Moreover, the textile and garment industries contribute around ten percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Cambodia, according to the NIS in its “National Account”. It is partly due to the role played by women that Cambodia has achieved higher growth rate in its GDP than other  countries in the region, especially prior to the economic crisis in late 2008.

All these facts, however, have yet  suceeded in bridging the gender gap in Cambodia. Female employment opportunities in Cambodia are currently highly concentrated in less skilled jobs which are highly vulnerable to external shocks like economic crises. Trade union and media sources report that some 60,000 female workers were laid off in the textile and garment industries when exports of clothing and accessories slumped in 2009. Most media reports state that while some of them decided to return to their homes to work on the land, many of these unemployed women turned to seek employment opportunities in the entertainment/service sectors which have dangerously high exposure to the flesh trade.

Women working in the  local trade sector have also shared a similar fate. Growth in the local trade sector was stunted as it was largely dependent on growth in the textile and garment industries which, as the NIS shows, experienced negative growth of nine percent in 2009.  This had a bad knock-on effect on local trading activities which are mainly handled by women.

To turn to another aspect, national figures show that the Cambodian female literacy rate stood at 64.1 percent in 2010, far below the literacy rate for males of 84.7 percent. This means there were only 66 girls to every 100 boys participating in higher secondary schooling; and only 48 girls to every 100 boys at college/university level. The obvious outcome here is that even before they enter the employment market, Cambodian women are disadvantaged by having fewer, or even lower, skills than their male counterparts.

The fact that women in Cambodia have not yet attained the same level of professional skills as men is critical and an injustice that needs to be remedied. Better education is needed for Cambodian women workers to close the gender gap and make them less vulnerable to the lure of “entertainment” work.