The Trade Union Law Will Be Passed Amid Controversy

The Khmer Times, 3 April 2016

The controversial draft Trade Union Law will be discussed and approved by the National Assembly this week, notwithstanding criticism from some labor unions, employers and human rights groups.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will likely vote against the bill, given its political stand with the trade unions.
Labor disputes and unstable industrial relations are key impediments to industrial development. The lack of inclusive consultation among relevant stakeholders in the process of drafting the Trade Union Law limits the effectiveness of the legislation.
The unions claim that their rights and freedom are restricted under the law. The critiques expressed their concern that the draft law falls short of protecting the rights of workers and their unions. There are many vague provisions in the draft law, which could potentially be easily abused by the government and employers.
The trade unions are unlawful if they are “contrary to public order,” to “cause trouble with the only objective of being of service to a political tendency,” or to “bring about a traffic jam.” Such provisions are prone to arbitrary or politically motivated interpretations by the courts, according to a March 2015 Human Rights Watch report.
The $5.5 billion garment industry, which employs about 700,000 workers and accounts for 54 percent of total exports, is facing mounting challenges and pressure to raise the working standards and minimum wage of the workers.
Last week representatives from the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia (GMAC) and the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations (CAMFEBA) underscored the economic loss of prevalent strikes in the garment industry.
Although the number of labor strikes has dropped in the last two years, the root causes of the disputes have not been holistically addressed. The lack of inclusive consultation and effective mechanisms to settle labor disputes constrains the Kingdom’s industrial development.
The politicization of labor disputes, the lack of transparency, accountability and social responsibility of the state and private institutions, and the decentralization of the labor movement, make the mitigation of labor disputes even more difficult.
Labor disputes have become more complex and tense since the late 1990s, along with a drastic increase in garment factories in Cambodia. The politicization of the labor disputes further complicates the process of finding solutions to the problems.
The draft Trade Union Law has been the subject of dialogue among trade unions, government agencies, employers’ associations and the International Labor Organization (ILO) since 2008.
The government started to push the draft law in 2014 in the aftermath of the general election in July 2013 and amid surging labor protests. In November 2015, the Cabinet adopted the draft law and sent it to the National Assembly for discussion and approval.
The draft law aims to govern unions and their activities, manage employer organizations, settle labor disputes and promote productive industrial relations.
Labor disputes mainly derive from lay-offs without proper compensation, indecent working conditions and disagreements over the minimum wage.
The issue of a minimum wage has been the core of tensions between employees and employers. The minimum wage is set to increase to $140 in 2016, which is $12 more than the present $128. But union leaders demand that the minimum wage rise to $160.
To resolve the minimum wage issue, the government plans to create a law on the minimum wage in order to have steady and manageable increases. The government has also imposed more legal restrictions on labor strikes and protests so foreign investors have more confidence to invest.
According to the latest figures by the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, there were 336 cases of strikes in 2015, a mere decrease of 2 percent from the year before.
The government faces a dilemma of assuring labor force contentment without squeezing employers’ profit margins and making Cambodian industry uncompetitive. Constructive and stable industrial relations are vital to industrial development.

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