Cambodia: Labor Minister Threatens Unions
The Labor Minister yesterday threatened any striking workers with arrest, claiming the ministry’s officials have to pay more attention to “the law” and stop the “impunity” with which unions operated.
At a workshop on the registration of trade unions and employer associations at the ministry yesterday, Labor Minister Ith Samheng said officials in all units of his ministry across the country had to make more of an effort to take legal action against workers who strike or demonstrate.
“I would like to say that from now on, all units and institutions should know that in all cases of demonstrations and strikes, even though the announcement is being made today, that they must continue to review the procedures of the law and whether it [protests] are done legally or illegally,” he said.
“We cannot allow anyone to violate the law with impunity on this issue.”
Mr. Samheng said unions involved in labor disputes had to have “representation” that would be able to negotiate on their behalf with the employer, but added that the ministry would mediate the negotiations if the workers are not part of a union.
“We need to strengthen job stability and apply the law. Any person who does something against the law will be punished without considering who you are, where you come from or what you depend on,” he said.
Despite most of his speech revolving around his belief in the need for tougher legal measures to be used against striking workers or unions, he claimed he was not threatening unions, only informing them of the consequences of their actions.
“This is not to threaten anyone, but to encourage those who implement the law properly,” he told the crowd. Yet almost immediately after saying this, he threatened legal action against the Kingdom’s panoply of unions and workers.
Unions who strike without consulting all of the workers in their union will be punished through the courts, he said. Ministries and departments within them will be willing to negotiate deals and end disputes, but if unions continue to protest after a resolution is found, they also will face legal action. Union leaders especially will be punished if their organizations violate any stipulations of the labor law, he added.
He went on to claim that the harsh measures were for the good of the country, parroting well-worn government clichés about the need for respect of “rule of law.”
“Our country will become anarchy. We do not want to put pressure on anyone, but we want respect for the law. For the officials, this is the same, they must have responsibility. Wherever we let something happen due to negligence for any reason without responsibility, they will face legal action as well,” Mr. Samheng said.
Mr. Samheng then pivoted to what he believed was the success of the recently-passed union law. He told attendees that concerns about the law’s effect on the number of unions were unfounded because since the law was passed, the number of unions had increased.
Four months since it was put into action, 300-400 unions were created, he claimed. The number of union federations increased from 82 to 103 and the union confederations increased from 17 to 18.
“The government, Labor Ministry, and Union Law have not blocked the freedom of trade unions and professional organizations as some people said. The freedom has been more guaranteed, but this freedom is governed by law,” he said.
The Labor Minister also said the ministry is planning to set up a registration system for unions in provinces and cities outside the capital using an electronic database that will link directly to the main ministry offices.
“I hope that while the number of unions increases, law enforcement, demonstrations and strikes will be reduced to a minimum,” he told the audience.
He added that the ministry is planning to print “warning letters” for unions that filed paperwork with mistakes in it but never fixed them.
Fa Saly, president of the independent National Trade Union Confederation, said the ministry wants to restrict the freedoms and rights of unions because the union law is already openly violating worker rights.
Specifically, he took issue with the idea that union leaders would be arrested in the event of a worker protest, and said it was troubling, not only for workers but for the country’s unions.
“We receive requests for help from workers. So are we wrong to help them? I think this is all a serious threat to union leaders and workers and seems to be an attempt to block the freedom to protest and expression. We are not happy about the words the Labor Minister used,” Mr. Saly said.
Mr. Saly was unsure of whether the minister’s claim of a rise in the number of unions was accurate.