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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Cambodia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Cambodia, 9 June 2010, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 14,800,000
Capital: Phnom Penh
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138

Anti-union practices and obstacles to organising remained frequent. Applications for the status of trade union organisation are regularly refused. Collective bargaining is rare and difficult. The labour courts have still not been established.

Trade union rights in law

Despite initial guarantees, many restrictions apply to trade union rights. Workers are free to form and join trade unions under the 1997 Labour Law, however civil servants and domestic staff are excluded from the law. All union leaders must have been engaged in the occupation their union represents for at least one year, and must be at least 25 years of age and have no criminal record. While the law recognises the right to collective bargaining and obliges employers to bargain, the authorities may refuse to grant most representative status to a union when the Labour Advisory Committee, the employer, or concerned third parties object to the union's petition. Trade unions are further undermined by the fact that each workplace with over eight employees must have a shop steward, who has the duty to perform functions that should be in the hand of elected union leaders – who lack similar enforceable rights. Furthermore, all industrial disputes are subject to cumbersome dispute resolution procedures. A minimum service is imposed in all enterprises, regardless of whether they are public utilities or not, and regardless of whether the minimum service exceeds the need to comply with statutory safety requirements.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) further consolidated its grip on the country after winning provincial and district council elections. The Prime Minister's authoritarian tendencies grew stronger, as did the CPP's pressure on its opponents. Despite several incidents, the Extraordinary Chambers for the prosecution of crimes by the former Khmers Rouges continued their work.

The world economic crisis had a strong impact on the clothing industry, a key sector of the Cambodian economy: according to an ILO report, 70 factories closed and 70,000 jobs were lost between 31 October 2008 and 31 October 2009. Taking the opening of other factories into account, the number of workers employed in the clothing sector fell by 48,000 over the same period.

Still no labour courts: Despite the fact that the Cambodian Labour Code of 1997 provides for the establishment of a system of Labour Courts and that a draft law on the subject has been drawn up by the Ministry of Justice, no labour court has yet been established. The Arbitration Council, a tripartite body created under the labour legislation, has effectively taken the place of the Labour Courts. The council is widely respected for its even-handed and impartial investigations and rulings. However, employers found to have engaged in anti-union discrimination usually appeal against the council's decisions in the provincial courts. Employers also often choose not to apply the courts' decisions.

Parody of justice: On 31 December 2008, the Supreme Court of Cambodia finally ordered the release (on bail) of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who had spent nearly five years behind bars, falsely charged with murdering the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) Chea Vichea (see the 2009 edition of the Annual Survey). It also sent the case back to the Court of Appeal to be retried. On 17 August the Court of Appeal decided that the two men could remain free on bail and that the case should be re-examined, but without specifying which court would be responsible.

On 18 February, the Court of Appeal confirmed the 15-year prison sentence handed down to Chan Sopheak (also known as Thach Saveth) for the murder of Ros Sovannareth, also a leader of the FTUWKC. He was sentenced in 2005 in a trial that violated the most basic standards for a fair trial.

Trade union rights violated with impunity: In spite of some progress thanks to initiatives such as ILO projects and the efforts of certain international buyers, working conditions and the respect for trade union rights in the clothing industry (Cambodia's biggest industry) remain difficult.

In many factories, trade unionists continue to face repression of all kinds, including death threats, dismissals, blacklisting, false accusations to bring them before the courts, wage deductions and exclusion from promotion, etc. The government very rarely prosecutes or takes measures against an employer for anti-union practices. In many instances, the Ministry of Labour's advice is for workers to take their case to court – which is costly and ineffective – or to accept cash settlements from the employers. Labour inspectors are poorly trained and, given their low pay, open to bribery. In cases where the Ministry of Labour does rule in favour of the workers, it rarely uses its legal authority to penalise employers who fail to follow its orders.

Strikes repressed: Although the government generally tolerates strikes, when the police are called on to intervene they do not hesitate to use violence and make arrests. Company security guards and hired thugs are also responsible for violently repressing strikes. Furthermore, the connivance between some employers and the police can be enough to dissuade workers from going on strike.

Holding of demonstrations even more severely restricted: Demonstrations are frequently dispersed by police, and violence is sometimes used. In May, police officers opened fire on about 100 people that had gathered outside the Chinese embassy to ask it to intervene in a pay dispute. The repression may get worse with the new legislation adopted in October, which bans demonstrations of over 200 people and prohibits them being held outside factories or government buildings.

Social dialogue often difficult: Collective bargaining is dogged by difficulties and few unions have managed to conclude an enforceable agreement. Management at Tack Fat Garment refused to meet trade union representatives from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) between February and October after is suspended 1,823 workers without paying them due compensation. The union coalition wanted to find a compromise.

Yellow unions: The establishment of yellow unions is another tactic deployed by some Cambodian companies to prevent the emergence of bona fide workers' representation.

Short term contracts becoming widespread and weakening trade unions: Many permanent contracts are being replaced by short term contracts (one to six months) allowing employers to avoid applying labour legislation. Furthermore, workers are reluctant to join unions for fear of not having their contract renewed. The government has proposed amending the legislation to enable enterprises to employ workers indefinitely on short term contracts rather than the de facto two year limit. In face of the many protests the proposal provoked, the amendments had not been adopted by the end of 2009.

Union leaders disregarded: A major practical problem is caused by a confusion in the law between the role of shop stewards and trade union leaders, which effectively leads to shop stewards performing functions that should be in the hands of elected union leaders. Although representative unions have the right to nominate the shop stewards, they are often elected before a union is organised at the workplace. In a number of cases, employers have used the factory representatives to block the path of unions to the bargaining table.

Smaller union presence in the clothing industry: In its report of 16 December on the clothing industry's respect for labour legislation and international labour standards in Cambodia (within the framework of the Better Factories Cambodia programme) the ILO noted a fall of 8% in the number of factories where workers belong to a union. Only 76% of the factories surveyed by the ILO had a union, compared to 84% when the previous report came out in April.

Naga-World takes 14 trade unionists to court: On 26 February management at the Naga World casino hotel dismissed 14 leaders and members of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers' Federation (CTSWF), including two heavily pregnant women. The trade unionists also faced financial blackmail: if they refused to sign their letter of dismissal, they would not receive their last month's salary. The dismissals came after the workers had tried to negotiate their annual bonuses with management. Naga World claimed the economic crisis was the reason for the dismissals. The union called for the reinstatement of its dismissed members and threatened several times to organise a strike. In July the 14 trade unionists were called to appear before the Phnom Penh municipal court following complaints brought by Naga's management who accused them of libel, disinformation and provocation. Two of them immediately resigned from the union and did not have to respond to questions from the prosecution. In October, the court dismissed the case.

One year suspended sentence for asking for a pay rise: On 9 July, a trade union leader and three workers' representatives from M&V Garment Factory were given a one year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay a fine of 500 dollars for provocation, following a collective demand for a pay rise for the factory's workers in 2007.

Management at Sinomax and Kingsland dig in their heels: The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) reported anti-union pressure at Sinomax International Garment Limited II. Management refused to reinstate several trade union leaders, including Ney Bunthoeun, president of the C.CWADU branch at the factory until April 2008. There was similar intransigence at Kingsland (see the 2009 Survey).

Trade union rights ignored at Angkor Wat: Cambodia's major tourist attraction, Angkor Wat, is still an obstacle course for trade unionists wishing to defend workers' rights. The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia (BWTUC) has denounced anti union intimidation faced by employees of APSARA, a body created by the government to protect the environment around Angkor Wat. The APSARA has a bad track record, following anti-union dismissals in 2006. In November, further to a complaint by the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association asked the government to take the necessary measures to ensure that APSARA and the Angkor golf complex enter into negotiations with their respective unions in good faith.

Teachers' association activity obstructed: The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) is registered by the Ministry of the Interior as a civic association, but is not recognised by the Ministry of Labour as a trade union, and is not therefore deemed eligible to represent teachers in collective bargaining procedures. Its meetings and seminars are often disrupted by the authorities, and the demonstrations and other protests it has organised have often been prohibited.

Civil servants' association not recognised for bargaining: Like CITA, the Cambodian Independent Civil Service Association (CICSA) is registered as a civic association, but it is not recognised by the government as a union and does not enjoy collective bargaining rights.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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