The government now requires union leaders to prove that they have no criminal record before registering new branches of their organization, according to a statement from the Ministry of Labor, a decision that comes less than a week before planned nationwide strikes in the garment sector.
The statement says that union leaders must submit a letter from the Ministry of Justice proving they have no previous criminal convictions before they can register a new union, said Jill Tucker, a technical adviser with the International Labor Organization (ILO), who said she has seen the communique.
Last week, a Ministry of Labor spokesman said that the constitutional right to unionize has been suspended until a long-awaited trade union law is brought into force. The official retracted his statement the following day without explanation.
Chea Mony, president of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union, said that his efforts to register new branches of his union this week were once again rebuffed by the government, with Labor Ministry officials now demanding proof of a clean criminal record.
“The ministry needs criminal records from the unions,” Mr. Mony said, adding that the government had made no efforts to consult unions on its decision.
“I think this is discrimination and closes the right to unionize,” Mr. Mony said. “The longtime prime minister [Hun Sen] is not pleased with workers or unions, so the government always finds excuses to cause problems for workers and unions.”
Mr. Mony, whose union has been aligned with Sam Rainsy’s opposition movement since it was founded in the 1990s, was charged in 2005 with defamation and incitement for criticizing a controversial border agreement with Vietnam signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr. Mony evaded arrest by fleeing to Ireland. In 2006, Mr. Mony was also briefly detained for organizing an unauthorized May Day demonstration.
The country’s Labor Law, passed in 1997, includes a stipulation that leaders of professional organizations, including workers unions, “shall…not have been convicted of any crime,” but the law has previously gone unenforced.
Officials at the Ministry of Labor could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that the decision by the government to enforce that provision in the existing law showed its commitment to reining in a labor movement, which, he claimed, is threatening the stability of the garment sector, which employs more than 500,000 workers and recorded over $5 billion in exports last year.
“This signals the intention of the government going forward to enforce existing laws. It is a positive sign for the industry, a positive sign for investment, a positive sign for buyers,” Mr. Loo said.
“No one can do business in an environment of uncertainty, which is what we have if unions are allowed to act illegally with impunity,” Mr. Loo continued.
“It is precisely because the government realizes that things have gotten out of hand…that now the government realizes we should make use of existing mechanisms,” he added.
Speaking at a government-private sector forum on Tuesday, Mr. Hun Sen said that there would be “no tolerance” for union activities that are deemed illegal by his government.
“The government would like to reaffirm that the implementation of the freedom to make demands must be done legally,” he said. “If it is done against the law, there will be no tolerance.”
During a meeting between the government and private-sector on Tuesday, a businessman asked Mr. Hun Sen to revoke the country’s ratification of an ILO convention on the freedom of association, which Cambodia signed in 1999.
A group of 18 labor unions and associations are organizing a nationwide stay-at-home strike for next week, demanding a $160 minimum wage, the release of 21 protesters who were imprisoned following demonstrations in January, and the prosecution of military police who shot dead five garment workers during a protest on Veng Sreng Street.
Leaders of six unions who organized the protest strikes in late December and early January were sued by at least 150 factory owners for allegedly inciting the workers to join illegal protests.
Prak Savuth, chief clerk at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that the case against the union leaders “seems quiet,” adding that he did not know about the status of the 150 factory owner’s complaints.
While factory owners claim there are too many unions in Cambodia, union representatives say that with weak enforcement of labor laws and refusal by factory owners to bargain in good faith, strikes are the only tool they can use to make their demands heard.
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