Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

TAFTAC Official Says He “Won’t Accept” Union at His Factory Prior to Union VP Losing Job

Three union members hold banners in front of SYSG Garment Company Limited to ask the factory's owner to reinstate vice president Yoeun Yim on June 21, 2023. (Supplied)
Three union members hold banners in front of SYSG Garment Company Limited to ask the factory's owner to reinstate vice president Yoeun Yim on June 21, 2023. (Supplied)

The deputy chairman of a major garment factory trade association said he will “not accept” a new union at his factory because he prefers a union run by a ruling CPP official. 

Soon after, the factory allegedly demanded in late May that the new union’s vice president Yoeun Yim withdraw from the union or lose his job, according to Yim.

“It not​ fair for me because I was elected as a vice president of the union at the factory and obeyed the labor law and he forced me out to stop the independent union,” Yim said. 

Textile, Apparel, Footwear and Travel Goods Association (TAFTAC) deputy chairman Enjoy Ho, who owns the SYSG Garment Company Limited factory in Phnom Penh, had previously warned the president of the Independent Trade Union Federation (INTUFE) that he did not want a new union formed by Yim and other workers at the factory. 

On May 12, INTUFE helped workers form a union and notified Ho’s factory. Ho then sent a message on May 18 to INTUFE president Sithyneth Ry, obtained by CamboJA and confirmed by Ho.

“Why did you register the union at my factory?” Ho said. “I have already registered a trade union in my factory…I will not accept this, especially the union representative next door to you is not very cooperative, which makes me feel very bad.”

In his text message, Ho noted his factory already had a union affiliated with the Cambodian Labor Union Federation, run by Som Aun, a member of the ruling CPP’s central committee.

Ho acknowledged to CamboJA that he had sent the message to INTUFE’s president, but that “as long as the union is registered in accordance with the law and approved, the factory will still accept it.”

The union had notified the factory director about the union’s elected leaders on May 17 and then submitted registration documents to the Labor Ministry two days later, documents obtained by CamboJA show.

Factory management allegedly called each union leader to meet in the factory office, one by one, and ordered them to resign from the union or else face black-listing across the industry, according to INTUFE’s Ry and Yim.

On May 31, the INTUFE-affiliated union’s vice president Yim said he had been told to stop working at the factory and his fixed-duration contract was not renewed. He had been working at the factory for one year and four months, he said.

“The director of the factory asked me to stop from the independent union if I want to continue working at his factory but I did not agree because I can’t continue the contract at all,” Yim said. “He said that I don’t need the union because I already have the​​ government union.” 

“After that they gave me a union resignation letter and asked me again to sign but I rejected it,” he added “They ask me do you want to be a gangster in my factory? I replied: ‘No, I just want to solve the worker problem and I never think like you said at all.’”

He said he feared if he showed up to the factory he would be arrested. He has sold his family’s cows and taken on debt to support his family in the past month, he said.

Three union members hold banners in front of SYSG Garment Company Limited to ask the factory’s owner to reinstate vice president Yoeun Yim on June 21, 2023. (Supplied)

SYSG factory’s administrative director Cea Hok Chhay denied there had been any discrimination against union leaders.

“Because our factory alway reviews​ the employment contract every three months,” Chhay said. “In Yoeun Yim’s case, he refused to give a thumb stamp to end the contract himself. And he does not have the conditions for the factory to have an effective contract until there is a mutual agreement between the workers and the employer.”

Chhay refused to specify what “conditions” Yim would have needed to meet for his contract to be renewed and later said he did not know what the conditions were himself.

“I don’t know because this is the right of each group leader’s decision making. I can’t say anything more than that,” Chhay said.

Cambodia’s Trade Union Law states that “employers shall not discriminate against workers on the basis of their involvement in holding…union leadership or participation in worker union activities when making decisions pertaining to…the termination and discontinuation of the employment contract.” 

Discrimination against union-formation can lead to fines of up to 5 million riel ($1,216).

Yang Sophon, president of the Cambodian Trade Union Confederation (CATU) said that she is aware of more than 10 different cases of workers being threatened by factory management for union membership and that this violated  national and international labor rights.

Regarding Sim’s dismissal and Ho’s text message in support the CPP-affiliated union, INTUFE president Ry says “this is not the right thing to do.”

“We know that they [management and owners] are not happy when factories have independent unions, especially the union which protects the interests of real workers,” Ry said. “But if it is a union that protects [the interests of] the boss, they are happy and allowed to enter or form in this factory. We see it as union discrimination.”

United Nations ILO-affiliated Better Factories Cambodia says that SYSG factory has been found fully “in compliance” in three assessments from 2019 to the most recent in June 2022. The assessments included reviewing the ability of workers to join and freely participate in unions.

The ILO and Better Factories Cambodia were sent information about Yim’s case by INTUFE in mid-June, emails viewed by CamboJA show. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Heng Sour, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and a Cambodian CamboJA reporter could not be reached for comment in this case. Labor Ministry official Nin Vannak, deputy general secretary of the committee for the resolution of strikes and demonstrations, declined to comment.

The factory produces clothes for the Inditex Group’s Zara brand. The brand did not respond to requests for comment from CamboJA. INTUFE’s Ry said the brand had responded to an email from the union and claimed the issue would be resolved. Nothing has happened since, he added.

“We can not accept when such pressure and violation happens to workers in a factory like this,” Ry said.

TAFTAC Secretary General Ken Loo said that the association supports factory owners to follow the law.

“If the worker in question was already elected, then the law already protects them from unilaterally being fired​,” Loo said in a Telegram message. “If the union was properly formed and registered and recognized by MLVT [the Labor Ministry], then no one has any rights to ‘not accept.’”

But Loo claimed Ho’s statement saying he did “not accept” the union and Ho’s factory’s actions against Yim, an elected union vice president, were not violations of law.

“Why fire the union vice president only?” Loo said. “Why not the president as well? Firing the union vp [sic] does not dissolve the union.”

Loo later said that Yim had not been dismissed but rather the factory had declined to renew his contract and that the factory was “not required to provide you with any evidence” to justify the non-renewal of Yim’s contract.

“The labor law has never protected against non renewal of a FDC [fixed duration contract],” he said, referring to a short-term contract which is periodically renewed by employers. “There is no obligation beyond this fixed duration.”

Article 63 of the Trade Union Law notes that the conditional renewal of an employment contract that requires a worker to withdraw from a union — as Yim alleges SYSG demanded of him — is illegal.

Ho said in a Telegram message that Yim’s termination was “in compliance with my company’s internal rules and regulations” and that more than 20 employees had faced non-renewal at the same time.

“The non renewal of Mr Yim’s contract was part of this regular process and certainly not related to trade union activities,” Ho said. “I am fully aware of the laws governing trade unions and also aware of non-discrimination requirements and am certain that my company is fully compliant in this regard.”

Human Rights Watch has stated that fixed duration contracts can be used to “discourage workers from unionizing” and non-renewal is often a tactic to get rid of union leaders.  

If any workers believed they had faced discrimination for their union affiliation, TAFTAC’s Loo said the workers should “complain to the [Labor] Ministry.”

Additional Reporting by Jack Brook