Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Op-Ed: Systematic Labour Rights Violation Needs To Be Addressed

Union leaders and activists protest outside of CC2, calling for the release of union leader Chhim Sithar, December 27, 2023. (Licadho)
Union leaders and activists protest outside of CC2, calling for the release of union leader Chhim Sithar, December 27, 2023. (Licadho)

At least 20 prominent independent trade union coalitions, support groups and associations provided thematic reports on the labor rights situation in Cambodia for the upcoming UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) pre-session in Geneva on 13 February 2024.

In the previous UPR cycle, countries including the US, Sweden, France, Belgium and Finland made concrete recommendations to improve labor rights to the government. The countries called on the government to take necessary measures to guarantee that fundamental freedoms of workers in Cambodia are fully respected and trade unionists are able to conduct their activities in a climate free of intimidation, threats or harm to their personal security. In addition, they urged the government to ensure that the legislative framework and labor policies enable trade unions to exercise their right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Over the last three years, there have been significant encroachments on civic spaces as seen in the intensification of attacks on independent trade unions and labor organizations. We observe that the independent union and labor movement in Cambodia is not merely under threat, but is being specifically and systematically targeted. The recent EU commission report on Everything But Arms (EBA) identified serious systematic violations of the principles of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPCR). Notably, they outlined the rights to Freedom of Association and Freedom of Assembly within the ILO recommendations, which referred to violations of the ILO core conventions No. 78 on freedom of association and No. 98 on collective bargaining.

While the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training have introduced amendments to the labor and trade union laws, these changes are largely tokenistic, for they do little to address the core issues of the laws or align them with international standards. 

Firstly, we face severe challenges in union registration and collective bargaining. Burdensome procedures for union registration and dues collection at factories with collective bargaining agreements are impeding freedom of association, a right protected under ILO Conventions and the ICCPR. We observe a troubling pattern of union applications being rejected for trivial errors, and an arduous process for Most Representative Status certification, which hinders workers’ ability to unionize. Based on data compiled by members of this submission, at least one federation registration and 32 enterprise-level union registrations remain pending as of February 2024, some for more than a year.

Secondly, the judiciary’s obstruction in labor dispute resolution has limited access to justice. There is an emerging trend of labor disputes being miscategorized to avoid arbitration, coupled with a lack of effective and timely legal remedies for workers in national courts. This misclassification of disputes and the current inaccessibility of the Arbitration Council for individual labor disputes is concerning. Workers experience undue delays in having their cases heard, and the lack of an independent, impartial judiciary compounds their bid for justice. As of February 2024, we counted at least 69 cases of unfair court decisions and misclassifications, which have not been able to reach the Arbitration Council, leaving adjudication by the national courts the only recourse.

Union leaders and activists protest outside of CC2, calling for the release of union leader Chhim Sithar, December 27, 2023. (Licadho)

Thirdly, we wish to highlight the systematic use of Fixed Duration Contracts (FDCs) as a tool for anti-union discrimination. Ministry of Labor guidelines have undermined established labor law, allowing employers to avoid transitioning staff to permanent employment status, thus weakening job security and collective bargaining rights. Based on data collected by independent unions and federations, at least 33,923 workers from 49 factories are still employed on FDCs. This is despite the fact their rightful contracts should be Unlimited Duration Contracts UDCs. A total number of 630 workers on FDCs were not rehired after establishing a union.

Furthermore, restrictions on peaceful assembly and expression have been exacerbated by the implementation of Covid-19 laws, which have been used to limit protests and strikes. This is a clear violation of rights enshrined in the ICCPR and the Cambodian Constitution. After NagaWorld laid off 1,329 casino workers in April 2021 and workers from the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees engaged in a peaceful, well-publicized strike, the police physically assaulted and arrested striking workers under the pretext of Covid-19 regulations.

We also observe a troubling trend of criminalization and discrimination against union leaders and labor rights activists. Judicial harassment, criminal charges, and threats against union members are prevalent, creating an environment of fear and repression. Independent unions, and workers’ interests are inadequately represented in government councils and there is an uneven development of rules and policies for workers in underrepresented sectors.

Protection mechanisms against gender-based violence remain below the necessary international standards, significantly impacting women. Widespread abuse in sectors like garment manufacturing and entertainment include discriminatory practices against pregnant workers and those with disabilities, and the targeted harassment of female union leaders.

Finally, Cambodia’s institutional and normative framework still fails to protect migrant workers. Without any governmental limit on recruitment fees, many workers incur debts to cover migration expenses. The lack of proper documentation restricts their access to justice, social security, and healthcare in host countries. 

To address these challenges, the government must take concrete steps and action with following recommendations;

  • Simplified union registration and “Most Representative Status” certification processes.
  • Properly classified labor disputes, and an effective, independent Arbitration Council.
  • The revocation of ministerial guidelines that undermine the Labor Law, particularly regarding Fixed Duration Contracts.
  • Amendments to regulations that limit peaceful assembly and the right to strike.
  • The protection of union leaders from violence, discrimination, and criminalization.
  • The inclusive representation of independent unions in wage and labor councils.
  • Clearly defined legal protections against gender-based violence at work and the ratification of ILO C190.
  • Enhanced migrant worker protections and the ratification of relevant conventions, such as ILO C181 on ethical recruitment and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

Addressing the existing human rights and labour rights concerns is essential for the full reinstatement of the EBA trade preferences as well preparing Cambodia to obtain US GSP scheme, which requires real and credible commitment by the Cambodian government.

Opinion published by Center of Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL)