Labor Ministry warns union leader for allegedly inciting workers5 min read

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Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions President Yang Sophorn, pictured outside the Labor Ministry in June, received a letter from the ministry on July 1 warning her for allegedly inciting workers. Panha Chhorpoan
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The Labor Ministry has warned a union president for engaging in activities that violate the Law on Trade Unions, accusing her of inciting garment workers to pressure and threaten their employers.

In a letter sent July 1 to Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), the Labor Ministry asks that she stop organizing for the workersat Violet Apparel (Cambodia) Co., Ltd factory immediately.

The letter said that Sophorn had brokenthe law by leading workers in a protest.

“[Yang Sophorn] led and incited workers to threaten and pressure employers to get compensation, which breaks the law,” the letter reads.

The ministry said Sophorn had encouraged workers to block the gates to the shuttered factory on July 1 and forced workers to jointhe protest, purposelycausing trouble. It also said that the gatherings of workers she had organized were in opposition to the Health Ministry’s guidelines to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“In the event that there is no change [in her behavior] or she repeatedly commits the actions noted in this warning letter, her union could see a complaint filed against it to dissolve or may face other measures based on the law,” the letter said.

According to workers at Violet Apparel, the protest referenced in the letter came after employees had suddenly been informed that the factory was permanently closing, and that they would not be paid on the date they had been promised.

Sophorn said by phone on July 2 that she found the Labor Ministry’s letter regrettablebecause she had done nothing illegal.

“We [CATU] did not do anything against the law,” she said. “I joined the workers at Violet Apparel factory because they requested to meet with me because they see me as a leader.”

The union leader said Violet Apparel factory had suspended operations from May 1until June 30. The factory owner then called the workers to a meeting on July 1 to receive their compensation, but instead found out that the factory would be closing and they would not be paid.

At the same time, Labor Ministry officials, factory representatives and union leaders including Sophorn also held a meeting in which a factory representative told them that the company would provide workers their money owed, including seniority payments and benefits. 

Sophorn said that she could not accept the ministry’s warning letter because she did not threaten and incite any workers, so please the ministry review this case again.

“The Labor Ministry should not have issued a warning letter to me. The letter could be seen as a threat to other unions, saying we are people who prevent workers’ rights,” she said, adding that letter seemed to be aimed at protecting the company rather than workers’ interests.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said via Telegram messenger that the letter had explained the details of the case, and declined to provide further comment.

Ung Chanthoeun, 43, a CATUworker representative at Violet Apparel, said the factory had more than 1,000 employees said that near the end of the factory’s suspension, on June 25, management had sent a message to workers saying that the factory would close permanently but would pay out workers.

However, on June 29, the factory sent a second message to employees saying that there was a problem with the bank account of the factory owners, so they had to delay payments until July 6. However, not all workers had received the second message, so on July 1, about 600 workers gathered in front of Violet Apparel to await their payment, Chanthoeun said.

She said that Sophorn and a Labor Ministry representative also held a meeting to try to solve the problem, but the factory would not agree to the workers’ demand for notice payment, which they say they are owed because they were not told in advance of the factory’s closure.

“Our workers did not agree with the factory and we filed a complaint through the Labor Ministry to solve the problem for us,” Chanthoeun said.

“I don’t think that my boss [Sophorn] incited workers to protest against the factory,” Chanthoeun said. “This is threatening and discriminating against our union.”

Ou Ratana, a deputy secretary-general of the Committee for the Resolution of Strikes and Demonstrations at the Labor Ministry, said he had sent the case to the Labor Conflict Department to solve rather than sending it to the Arbitration Council, which was established in 2003 to solve disputes between workers and factory owners.

“On July 1, I went to help solve the issue for them, but workers did not agree [to the terms], so I sent the case to the Labor Conflict Department to solve,” he said.

He noted that his actions were in line with a new ministry directive which does not require factory owners to provide a notice payment to workers if they must close without informing employees in a timely manner.

“I request that workers and factory owners cooperate with each other to solve the problem, because now this is more common amid Covid-19.”

Chrun Theravong, director of the ministry’s Labor Conflict Department declined to comment.

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC), said that the ministry should amend the Law on Trade Unions because the current law does not allow unions to help workers directly, although union leaders have the right to accompany workers when they encounter problems.

“Some NGOs and unions requested that the National Assembly amend some articles of the law involving this pointbecause it is causing union leaders to lose our rights,” Thorn said.

He noted that representatives of CLC had also previously been warned by the ministry on occasions when they had helped workers directly negotiate with factory management. 

Moeun Tola, executive director of labor and human rights NGO Central, said that in this case, Violet Apparel should have explained clearly to workers whether they were suspending or permanently closing operations.

“I think that the Labor Ministry issuing a warning letter to a union leader is very serious,” Tola said.

He noted that the International Labor Organization as well as local NGOs and unions had also requested that the National Assembly amend some articles of Union Law, adding that the European Union’s decision tocut its trade preference scheme for the garment and footwear sector was also partially due to those amendments.

“The ministry should mediate with the company to help explain to workers clearly and make sure that the workers are paid accurately,” he said.

“Please, stop issuing warning letters to union leaders, because it is only pouring gasoline on the fire in a situation like this,” Tola said.  

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