December 19, 2019 / 4:50 PM / a month ago

Labor unions criticize Cambodia over fresh blow to workers' rights

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Workers making clothes in Cambodia for global fashion brands face increased risk of abuse due to an amended law, trade unions said, as they criticized the government for sidelining them.

Some 800,000 Cambodians working in clothing factories, mostly young women, face an uncertain future as the European Union (EU) has threatened to introduce trade sanctions over the country’s record on democracy and human rights.

In a fresh blow to unions calling for greater workers’ rights, Cambodia passed amendments to a law last week that activists say leaves workers vulnerable to abuses in a country where the Walk Free Foundation says one in 60 people are slaves.

“The latest round of ... amendments further curtail workers’ labor and human rights by severely limiting their freedom of association, and rights to organize and collective bargaining,” 36 unions and advocacy groups said in a statement this week.

The amended law could enable the government to revoke union registration on arbitrary grounds, does not grant the right to collective bargaining for better pay and conditions to all unions, and prevents informal workers from unionizing, it said.

A government spokesman said that due process had been followed and unions had missed their chance to air grievances during talks about the changes.

“They should have challenged before the law was passed,” Phay Siphan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Now it has become law, what can they do? Just respect the law.”

Last week’s amendments were to Cambodia’s 2016 Law on Trade Unions governing trade unions, which has been heavily criticized as a tool to stifle worker voices and union activity.

The 2016 law set rules on how unions are formed, operated and dissolved and was passed in its original form, without alterations requested by unions, employers and rights groups.

Leaders of independent unions said this month’s changes ignored international standards and U.N. recommendations, and that they were largely excluded from talks between representatives of government, employers and workers.

“At that meeting, there was an overrepresentation of pro-government unions, government officials, and employers’ representatives,” the statement by the 36 groups said.

One prominent union leader contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said he was not invited to the talks, while a second was unable to attend, having received only a day’s notice.

“The adoption of these amendments has been done to protect the interests of the government and employers,” said Sok Kin, president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, who attended the talks.

“Unions will still have problems in carrying out their activities and protecting the rights and interests of members.”

The unions and activists have called on the government to reconsider the amendments - taking into account recommendations from the U.N.’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

“The ILO ... has outlined where the law needs to be,” said William Conklin of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based charity that promotes labor rights, adding that about 25 trade unions met to agree priorities ahead of the tripartite talks.

He said that the changes represent “partial progress” on some of those priorities but largely address “low-hanging fruit.”

“The question is: If you make some steps in the right direction, but are still in negative territory, is that enough?” asked Conklin, the charity’s director in Cambodia.

ILO representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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