Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Kong Athit Voted As CLC President, Defeating 18-year Incumbent Ath Thorn 

Union members vote to elect new president of CLC on May 19, 2024. (CLC)
Union members vote to elect new president of CLC on May 19, 2024. (CLC)

The fifth general assembly of the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC), which was held in a hotel in Phnom Penh on May 19, saw Kong Athit voted as its president, edging out Ath Thorn, who has held the position since its founding 18 years ago. 

The general assembly, held every five years to elect new leaders, was attended by over 200 participants, who also cast their vote for CLC vice president and secretary-general posts, which were clinched by Heng Choeun and Heng Chenda, respectively.

President of Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers’ Federation and ex-CLC vice president, Morm Rithy, who is serving an 18-month prison sentence for an alleged charge of incitement and discrediting a judicial decision on May 7, stood as an incumbent candidate but failed to retain his vice president post.

A statement issued by CLC earlier this month, decried the conviction, passed in absentia against Rithy, calling it “unreasonable” and “intimidating”, and a form of harassment of the rights of employee representatives.

Meanwhile, newly-elected Athit, who beat Ath Thorn to garner 102 votes against Thorn’s 83 votes, pledged to resolve labor disputes and work hard for the benefit of CLC members.

He outlined five principles under his leadership –  to improve the quality of dispute resolutions, build alliances, ensure transparency in budget management, strengthen local union work, conduct negotiations and push for higher wages and conducive working conditions for workers.

Kong Athit, new CLC president, addresses members before the election to vote for a new president began on May 19, 2024. (CamboJA/Va Sopheanut)

He was determined to organize CLC, which he referred to as a “lake”, so that everyone can enjoy its benefits. “Only by working together, we can look at the arrangements, where to place individuals or how to devise a strategy, and discuss.”

Ath Thorn, who failed in his bid to retain his CLC presidency for the fifth mandate, however, assured that he would continue to promote labor rights in his post as vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU). Athit is CCAWDU president.

According to the CLC’s election rules, CLC’s presidents, vice presidents and secretary-generals as well as their member organizations’, who have served in those positions for at least three years can stand as candidates.

Of the 10 institutions under CLC, six union federations had registered their members to vote but four associations were ineligible to vote as they had not registered with the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, said Leng Bunchher, CLC administration and human resources coordinator. “They had only registered with the Ministry of Interior.”

He said union federation​s with many members can allow their members to vote. Among them was Athit’s CCAWDU, which had comparatively more members than the others. Eighty eight out of 188 members who were registered to vote for the CLC president post were from CCAWDU.

Sang Somaly, a local union worker with a garment factory in Sihanoukville, urged the new CLC president to provide more training on labor rights and knowledge relating to women’s issues, as local members lack knowledge on the subject.

“Because local [union] leaders are sometimes less educated, they might be less receptive, so we encourage them to get more [training],” Somaly said. “When local [union] leaders and workers have a dispute, we need some knowledge to resolve it immediately.”

Som Song, who works at a tire factory in Svay Rieng province, hoped that the new leadership would improve labor rights and end the oppression and exploitation of workers.

“We want our workers to have a good job and no labor oppression,” he said, adding that the new leaders need to resolve other problems, like the National Social Security Fund.

Yi Soksan, an Adhoc human rights official, who attended the general assembly, said he was not able to fully assess the new CLC leadership because he worked at another institution and was unaware of its activities.

“We are not sure whether he can fulfill what he promised since we are in another institution. We find it difficult to determine what he [the new leaders] can do because we did not look at the policies [there],” he said. “We don’t know what he does inside [CLC].”

Ath Thorn, former CLC president, casts his vote during the CLC general assembly on May 19, 2024. (CLC)

Established in 2006, the CLC is an independent union made up of 10 unions, federations and associations, including CCAWDU, which represent workers in garment, construction, tourism, forestry, agriculture and transportation sectors, as well as informal workers. It has more than 130,000 individual members currently.

Member organizations under the CLC work together to promote workers’ rights and study employment, economic and social conditions which might impact the labor force. As a representative of the workers, it holds a clear, strong and influential position to negotiate and advocate with the government and employers to protect the rights and freedoms of the workers.

The CLC also trains workers on labor laws and regulations, international labor conventions, employment status, the economy and society.