Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Report Was To Improve Workers’ Condition, CENTRAL Clarifies; Interior Ministry Investigates

About 70 unionists protested in front of CENTRAL’s office in Phnom Penh on June 14, 2024. (CamboJA)
About 70 unionists protested in front of CENTRAL’s office in Phnom Penh on June 14, 2024. (CamboJA)

The Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) clarified that its report, which highlighted restrictions on freedom of association, was aimed at improving workers’ conditions and ensuring respect for the rights of trade unions and leaders.

The Ministry of Interior is currently investigating the allegations by unions and federations against the organization.

At the same time, Cambodia Worker’s Right Protection Union Confederation (CWPUC) has filed a complaint against CENTRAL program manager Khun Tharo in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday.

Amid this, dozens of unions and federations have continued protesting against CENTRAL, saying that they “still cannot accept” the clarification.

On Wednesday, CENTRAL issued a clarification, stating that their report sought to highlight Better Factories Cambodia’s (BFC) assessment that freedom of association can create a safer and more respectful environment for Cambodian trade unions to operate.

“Our intention was to raise awareness for changes in compliance monitoring that would lead to more accurate, usable data for all workers in negotiations to improve their working conditions and exercise their rights,” the statement read.

“Many of the workers and unions that CENTRAL partnered with experienced restrictions in their ability to associate freely,” it said.

The report attempted to detail the experiences of union leaders and workers who participated in the study and show that what happened on the ground “was not always captured” in BFC’s public compliance data, due to various methodological, institutional, and logistical reasons.

“We fully acknowledge that our sample is not necessarily representative of Cambodia’s entire garment sector,” it said. “We would like to reiterate that we feel it is clear that the report was never intended as an attack on any party or institution nor was it intended to damage Cambodia’s reputation.”

CENTRAL mentioned that the report had a “very narrow scope with a small sample size” that was meant to be viewed as “illustrative”, “not necessarily representative of all Cambodian garment workers”.

In addition, a survey was conducted with one representative from 14 of the 24 participating unions from December last year. By June this year, six unions had dissolved because of factory closures, while the remaining four either “did not have compliance reports available or were not registered with BFC”.

Meanwhile, CWPUC has accused CENTRAL’s Tharo of public defamation and incitement to discrimination following an interview with RFA on June 15. 

According to a complaint sent by CWPUC to a prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday, Tharo is alleged to have uttered the words “use fake unions to attack independent unions and use fake youths or civil societies to attack youths and independent civil society”.

The complaint by CWPUC also alleged that Tharo’s statement was a “serious accusation without clear legal basis and infringed on the rights, freedoms and dignity of professional organizations (unions), defaming (them) as well as CWPUC”.

The CWPUC requested the prosecutor to review and decide on the legal action while demanding that Tharo pay a compensation of 100 million riel ($25,000) to CWPUC, which will be donated to Kantha Bopha Hospital.

CENTRAL’s Khun Tharo could not be reached for comment.

Phnom Penh Municipal court deputy prosecutor Plang Sophal did not reply to questions regarding the lawsuit via Telegram.

Separately, Confederation Union of Cambodia Bright Workers’ general secretary Sea Kunthea said CENTRAL acknowledged that its report was incomplete or not comprehensive and did not reflect the reality in Cambodia. 

“I don’t accept [the statement] unless they edit the report that was released on June 4, 2024 to reflect the actual situation,” said Kunthea. By actual situation, she meant that there was no restriction on the freedom of association. Until CENTRAL changes the report, she will continue to protest, she vowed.

Kunthea said CENTRAL should not have released the report which talked about the restriction of freedom of association, particularly when Cambodia has approximately 6,000 unions present in about 1,000 factories. “Compare this to other countries, are there any which have the freedom [to set up] unions like our country?”

Echoing Khunthea, Kim Chan Samnang, president of the Cambodian Workers’ Rights Union, demanded that CENTRAL change its report as it does not represent the overall situation of unions and federations in the country.

“The statement of clarification is just an excuse because [what they meant in the] statement is opposite to their report,” he said, adding that the report has already been released publicly. 

Samnang demanded that the Ministry of Interior review CENTRAL’s activity and their foreign funding.

International organizations, such as CIVICUS and garment industry labor alliance Clean Clothes Campaign, said pro-government unions have started a “coordinated effort” to convince the Interior Ministry to investigate CENTRAL’s operation and finance. It will further restrict civil society organizations’ space to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, which is essential for exercising the rights to freedom of association.

“It is extremely worrying that these groups are seeking to undermine and seek greater government control of the organization. These actions send a chilling message to human rights groups undertaking their work in the country,” the statement by CIVICUS read.

Forty-four local organizations, including rights group Licadho, published a joint statement “disagreeing” with the calls made by the public for a ministerial investigation into the finances and operation of CENTRAL. 

The organizations said “using administrative measures to penalize the labor rights group’s work is a violation of freedom of expression”.

On Monday, it was reported that the Interior Ministry was planning to launch an investigation into CENTRAL’s operation and use of foreign funds. A petition was also submitted to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) by the unions and federations to reconsider its funding of CENTRAL.

On the same day, the Textile, Apparel, Footwear and Travel Goods Association in Cambodia (TAFTAC) issued a controversial statement, alleging that Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) and Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) also refuted the CENTRAL report.

However, CATU rejected the claim made by TAFTAC, which stated that the freedom of association in Cambodia was “better”, and it was “certainly so in the garment, footwear and travel goods sectors”.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak confirmed that an investigation committee is working on this issue.

“They are working, and the person who brings the information to them [CENTRAL] is [doing something] illegal,” he said. “Let the committee do it [inform CENTRAL],” Sopheak said, declining to comment further.

Neither USAID in Cambodia nor BFC responded to CamboJA News via email.

The International Labor Organization said it will respond by Friday.

(Reporting by Khuon Narim, Tang Porgech and Ly Rosslan)