Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Authorities Aided Alleged Union-Busting at Puma-Supplying Factory

Bora, who was fired by his Puma-supplying shoe factory after helping form a union in late October last year, at his home in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province. (Jack Brook/CamboJA)
Bora, who was fired by his Puma-supplying shoe factory after helping form a union in late October last year, at his home in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province. (Jack Brook/CamboJA)

In October 2022, Bora believed forming a union at his Takeo province shoe factory would help him and his colleagues gain better benefits. 

Instead, soon after co-founding the union, Bora  —  who requested a pseudonym to protect his safety — was fired from his job at Bright Flushing factory, which makes shoes for the international brands Puma and The North Face, among others. 

As with two other Bright Flushing workers fired after unionizing, Bora’s case is currently a focus of ongoing talks between Puma, Bright Flushing and the NGO Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central). 

Since August, at least 12 workers at Bright Flushing and another Puma-supplying factory, Eastcrown, lost their jobs after trying to form unions. Both factories allegedly took advantage of Cambodia’s onerous union registration process by forcing resignations of elected leaders to undermine the formation of the unions, according to Central and several workers at each factory.

Testimony from Bright Flushing workers and evidence shared by Central reveal that local authorities were complicit in helping factory management squash an independent union through threats of arrest and loss of welfare benefits.

Since January, Puma has helped reinstate the jobs of 11 fired union members in the two factories — not including Bora — and began mediation with Central and Bright Flushing on February 7. 

But reinstated workers at both Puma-supplying factories say they still feel unsafe and lack job security, while the futures of their fledgling unions remain in jeopardy. 

Two of the Bright Flushing union founders initially fired by the factory say they were required by local authorities to sign agreements in January barring them from rejoining their unions in order to regain their jobs and were afraid to speak further with CamboJA for their security.

Central program manager Khun Tharo said that in the ongoing mediation process with Puma, Central will demand an end to all discrimination against union members and request the full reinstatement of Bora and his two colleagues. The NGO will also seek to invalidate the agreements signed by the two former union leaders, and establish an independent monitoring group to ensure the mediation’s outcomes are delivered properly.

“If my problem and those of other union members get solved, the union movement at Bright Flushing will stay strong,” Bora said. “But if this case has no resolution and no one takes any action, no one will stand up to create a union and our union rights will be extinguished.”

Since losing his job, Bora has remained unemployed and struggled to provide for his two young children and said he feeds them by fishing in rice field ponds. (Jack Brook/CamboJA)

Union members, especially those in leadership positions, are protected from harassment and targeted layoffs under Cambodian law and U.N. human rights principles — as well as in the codes of conducts of Puma and The North Face. 

The global brands purchasing from Southeast Asia’s garment factories often do little to intervene unless facing sustained pressure, said Dave Welsh, Burma and Thailand country director for labor rights NGO Solidarity Center, who also worked in Cambodia from 2010 to 2015.

“Writ large, multinational brands, European and American, what attracts their investment is jurisdictions where the rule of law is weak and freedom of association is limited,” Welsh said. “Those are things they view as positives, frankly.”

Cambodia’s garment industry employs over 700,000 workers and fuels more than one-third of the country’s gross domestic product. Garment exports, along with tourism, have been a pillar of Cambodia’s fast economic growth rate since the late 1990s, according to the World Bank. But garment, footwear, and textile workers, the majority of whom are women, earn a mere $200 monthly minimum wage and are vulnerable to layoffs and severance pay theft by their employers.

The global garment industry is hyper-competitive and encourages factories to ruthlessly cut costs, said Dennis Arnold, a political economist at the University of Amsterdam who has been researching Cambodia’s garment industry since the early 2000s.

“They [factories] are under a lot of pressure from the global buyers to produce always for lower prices, always with greater quality, always with less less time involved,” Arnold said. “They’re afraid of independent unions because they think that’s going to put that in jeopardy.”

Authorities aided alleged union-busting

The night before the union election for Bright Flushing workers on October 29, an anonymous phone caller warned Central, which was assisting the process, that anyone who joined the factory’s new union would be fired. When the vote was held, unknown people showed up to photograph the 27 participants. 

Within a week, Bright Flushing had fired two elected union leaders and pressured 10 other workers to withdraw from the union, according to several workers and reports compiled by Central. If any elected leader resigns, the union must hold new elections as required by the 2016 Trade Union law, which civil society groups have criticized since its inception as designed to repress unions.

“I didn’t realize [unionizing] could lead to a big issue like this,” said Vuthey, one of the fired union leaders who requested a pseudonym for their safety. “If I had known, I would have prepared myself for it. It was very hurtful when I was terminated, I cried myself to sleep.”

Sunny Chen, Bright Flushing senior factory manager, and Bright Flushing’s chairman and owner, Wang Ku Hsiu-Hsia, could not be reached for comment.

The entrance of Bright Flushing factory, which makes shoes and apparel for Puma and VF Corporation’s The North Face, in Cambodia’s Takeo province. (Jack Brook/CamboJA)

In early January, commune authorities and factory management tried to force Vuthey and another fired worker to thumbprint documents saying they had voluntarily resigned from their jobs and union positions, then signing a new employment contract. Otherwise, they were warned they would face arrest, according to Central

“When they [local authorities] came to negotiate, they said I was creating an opposition union,” Vuthey said.

The commune authorities also allegedly told Vuthey that she and her family would lose their IDPoor welfare benefits if they did not sign the factory’s documents, Central reported.

Nhem Chhorn, commune chief of Leay Bor where Bright Flushing is located, said the factory management had requested “to meet for advice” about dealing with the union but denied making any threats against the workers. 

“There’s been no issue involving threats to the union in the factory,” Chhorn said. “I have never been involved. The village and the commune have never been involved with this, nor threatened or abused the union.”

Bright Flushing also reportedly told workers that it planned to submit a complaint to the Cambodian Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training claiming the new union was fraudulent. When Puma was informed of the factory’s plans by Central’s director Moeun Tola, “the local Puma representative stated that…Puma would await the outcome of that process,” Tola wrote in a November 8 letter to Puma’s head of corporate sustainability, Stefan Seidel.

Ministry of Labor spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to requests for comment, hanging up the phone when contacted. 

“Puma should not legitimize Bright Flushing’s actions by merely sitting aside and waiting for any such process to play out,” Tola said in his letter to Seidel. “Instead, Puma ought to adopt a clear stance with Bright Flushing that it must immediately reinstate all of these dismissed workers without condition…”

Puma spokesperson Robert-Jan Bartunek said the brand did not tolerate discrimination against union members.

“We expect no interference from factory staff throughout the process of forming a new trade union,” Bartunek told CamboJA in an emailed statement. “We expect that all the necessary actions are taken, so no trade union members/leaders face any retaliation, intimidation, harassment, repression in any way from any factory staff.”

Yet Puma continued to source products from the Bright Flushing throughout January, months after Central alerted the brand to the alleged retaliation against the union founders, according to global trade data company Panjiva. 

VF Corporation, a conglomerate owning The North Face brand, has been working with the factory since November 2016, according to Becky Cho, vice president of corporate affairs and communications. In an emailed statement to CamboJA, she said that VF’s factory compliance standards and principles bar any attempts to harass or undermine unions and factories which failed to uphold these standards could face “potential contract termination.” She said the brand was “engaged” with stakeholders about the case.

VF Corporation also sourced products from the factory in January, per Panjiva.

Despite the brands’ statements, intimidation has persisted against union members at Bright Flushing, workers say. 

Vuthey said local authorities and factory management forced her to sign an agreement in mid-January to get her job back later in the year. 

Vuthey’s agreement, viewed by CamboJA, required her to “cease joining as a union member” and promise to “respect the principles of the factory and follow the policies of the Royal Government forever.”

Another fired union leader declined to speak with CamboJA, citing a similar agreement.

Vuthey’s family members were also asked to sign contracts to educate her about the importance of not participating in unions, according to Central. 

Vuthey said the agreement she signed prohibited her from speaking to NGOs and the media and she had been able to return to work in February. She was unsure if she would rejoin the union.

“I’m still worried because I don’t have freedom to talk, to tell the truth,” she said. “If any NGOs can clear all the misunderstanding [with the factory], I will rejoin the union, but I am still afraid and my family worries about what might happen.”

Unlike Vuthey, Bora has not been reinstated and Puma would not comment on his specific case. While he had worked at the factory for more than a year, he was fired soon after the union election for allegedly being involved in a physical fight with other workers.

Bora, a slender father of two, explains two men accosted him on the factory floor and he immediately reported the incident to management. Despite the presence of a factory security camera, no proof of a fight has been shown, Central said. No Puma staff have since tried to talk with him to hear his testimony, Bora said. 

Bora has not been paid since November and has had to take out a private loan and fish in rice field ponds to feed his family.

“I want [Puma] help us to find the right solution by following the law and all the union members who got fired come back to work as normal quickly,” Bora said. “I can’t accept what they [the factory management] have done to me.”

Workers believe brands offer limited support

Even in cases where brands like Puma intervene, the protection of union workers’ rights is still tenuous, several workers at Puma-supplier Eastcrown factory say.

Eastcrown worker Seung Votum and 15 of her colleagues tried to form a union in early August. Despite holding two elections that month, the process stalled when nine workers lost their jobs and other union founders backed down from pressure, according to Central.

After Central appealed to Puma, the fired workers were reinstated in early January. But, by then, four of the workers had already found employment elsewhere and did not return, meaning the union would be required to hold new elections — which have yet to happen — in order to be recognized by the Ministry of Labor, Votum explained.

“Now the situation is extremely oppressive because we don’t have an independent union,” Votum said. “If we speak out, they will remove us.”

Eastcrown administrator Va E Hong denied any workers had been fired for their union affiliation and said that the company had laid off many other workers. 

“There was no firing [of workers], only we submitted a letter to the Labor Ministry to reduce staff because our orders have been decreased due to Covid and economic problems,” Hong said. 

Factories can remove outspoken workers without running afoul of labor laws by keeping workers on fixed-duration, short-term contracts of only a few months, Human Rights Watch noted in a 2022 report on union-suppression in Cambodia.

Near the end of December, Eastcrown gave union member Rith Sitha another three month contract, but after the factory learned she went to meet with a Puma representative, the factory attempted to lay her off in January.

Sitha refused to thumbprint a contract to end her employment because, as she said, “I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

“The Ministry of Labor interprets the law that the [union worker’s] contract is expired, so their dismissal is valid, not a discrimination against the union,” said Central’s Tharo.

Though Sitha was recently reinstated after Puma became involved in her case, she says is still being surveilled by factory management and her boss has become more oppressive.

Bora, the fired Bright Flushing worker, said that even after Puma’s involvement, union founders have suffered lasting consequences and face ongoing threats.

“This is Cambodia and they [the factories] can take any action they want here,” he said. “I have no hope that Puma can help protect me.”