Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Union Representatives Protest Against CENTRAL For “Restrictive” Freedom of Association Report

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)

About 70 union federations and unions protested against the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) in Phnom Penh for publishing a report, which they alleged restricted union representatives’ freedom of association.

On Friday, the protesters submitted a petition to CENTRAL, stating that its report was “baseless” and “did not reflect the truth of the situation of unions in Cambodia”. It also submitted a petition to the Ministry of Interior.

On June 4, CENTRAL released a report following a one-year study, titled “Barriers to Representation: Freedom of Association in Cambodia”, where union representatives from 10 out of 14 workplaces said they faced violations of freedom of association. 

They include verbal intimidation, threats, harassment, obstacles to union registration, restrictive strike and collective bargaining policies and blacklisting, which “severely” affected their ability to function.

“Cambodian union activity is being eclipsed by constant surveillance and monitoring by company-affiliated unions, and a prevailing atmosphere of distrust,” read the report.

“We urge Better Factories Cambodia [BFC] and its stakeholder institutions to ensure that the improvement of labor conditions remains at the absolution center of all their efforts, by focusing especially on freedom of association,” it said.

President of Federation for Cambodia  Workers, Huy Sambath, told reporters that CENTRAL was registered with the Interior Ministry but was acting like a “trade union organization registered with the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training”.

“CENTRAL receives funds from overseas but has never had a report for workers and the public,” he said. “The organization always provides information that confuses the public and manipulates the leadership of the Labor Ministry.”

Sambath said CENTRAL was not the president of a union or union federation but acted against the Labor Ministry’s terms and conditions by “persecuting, interfering in the internal affairs of the union and destroying the achievements of the union”. 

Professional unions do not talk about politics, but CENTRAL’s activities are political, he alleged, thus urging the organization “not to interfere in union affairs, discredit and label the union as non-independent or independent”. 

“No one ordered us to come here, but it hurts [to see] CENTRAL attacking the union,” Sambath said, adding that the report did not reflect the reality of the union situation in Cambodia, as it only reported 14 factories when there were “thousands of factories” in the country.

“CENTRAL’s activities are not for workers. If CENTRAL really works for workers, they will definitely give money to workers every year,” he said.

Union representatives submit a petition to the Ministry of Interior against CENTRAL’s report on June 14, 2024. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)

After their gathering with banners at CENTRAL’s office, about 10 Cambodian workers’ union representatives traveled to the Interior Ministry to submit the petition, requesting it to “monitor CENTRAL’s activities”.

Yun Soksarin, president of Federation Unions for Khmer Workers, told CamboJA News that the reason for the group’s petition to the Ministry of Interior was to request the ministry to review CENTRAL’s activities.

He felt that they were conducting activities “opposite” that which was required of an organization registered with the Interior Ministry and was disappointed with the report on the state of freedom of association in Cambodia.

“The Interior Ministry is like CENTRAL’s parents, so I ask the ministry to monitor the activities of this organization,” Soksarin said.

“As a president of a union federation, I am not happy because CENTRAL spends a lot of time working unprofessionally. Ours is a professional organization, I work for the rights of workers, but CENTRAL does not. They released a report with no accuracy,” said Soksarin. 

The report by CENTRAL underlined the use of fixed duration contracts (FDCs), saying that it was of “notable concern”, compared to workers on Undetermined Duration Contracts (UDCs) or short-term contracts, as they have lower protection against dismissals and workers lose out on seniority benefits.

It recommended to the International Labor Organization, International Finance Corporation, Better Work and BFC to “make the full compliance report for buyers available to the public, especially workers and representatives, for purchase under equitable pricing plans and purchasing conditions”. 

It also urged international buyers and brands to engage with ILO’s Better Work in all supplier countries to improve the inclusion of workers and their representatives in the assessment process.

“There is enough evidence to suggest that BFC assessments are potentially being conducted without the full inclusion of independent unions at each factory,” said CENTRAL.

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

Khun Tharo, program manager at CENTRAL, told CamboJA News that the gathering of unions with banners was their right to freedom of expression.

However, he suggested that they take a serious look at CENTRAL’s report again before they pass judgments, adding that “maybe they misunderstood” the report as it is based on data collection and research from unionists and experts.

“Our report has no intention to attack any sides. It offers recommendations to stakeholders, government, buyers and ILO to review the barriers to the freedom of association to improve the status of trade union rights in Cambodia,” said Tharo.

The report looked “scientific” with clear data on obstacles in factories which hindered the formation of unions, Tharo mentioned, while encouraging unions to request more data and information from the Interior Ministry, and Ministry of Economy and Finance.

“I think they misunderstood our mission and vision, so if they want to know about our mission or funding, they should read about the terms and conditions that are with the Interior Ministry to get all the information,” Tharo said. 

Interior Ministry spokesperson Touch Sokhak said he will review the issue, and declined to comment further.