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(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government appears to be sharply limiting registrations of unions, which could harm workers who depend on union protection, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the minister of labor and vocational training. Unions in Cambodia primarily represent workers in individual garment factories, who are typically young women from impoverished families.

The Labor Ministry should restart the registration of unions and stop unilaterally amending union registration procedures without input from independent unions and other labor rights experts.Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on official government license registrations since 2011 and interviews with union leaders and representatives.

“The Cambodian government’s unjustified slowdown of union registrations harms workers who depend on unions to advocate for rights and a decent livelihood,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should make May Day meaningful to workers by resuming union registration and ending unnecessary interference in union activities.”

Independent union federations have raised concerns about a de facto suspension of union registration. This was supported by Labor Ministry data that suggested a dramatic reduction in union registrations in December 2013. Officials could provide no information on new registrations in 2014, but said between 50 and 60 applications were pending. Under Cambodian law, the ability of unions to operate is severely curtailed without official registration.

The slowdown in union registrations may reflect revisions being made to the regulation on union registration, Prakas 21, Human Rights Watch said. Union representatives told Human Rights Watch that ministry officials were not accepting applications for union registration or union leadership changes while registration procedures were being revised. They said the government has not consulted with federations about changes to the regulation.

Recent demands made by government regulators on union federation officials suggest that Cambodia’s Labor Ministry is placing unnecessarily burdensome procedures on union registration and leadership changes. Among these are obtaining a certificate from the Ministry of Justice proving that each union representative has no criminal record, which could be a prolonged process.

Proposed union representatives awaiting this certificate are often at risk of retaliation from factory management, independent unions told Human Rights Watch. Further extending the waiting period increases the risk of harassment and possible firings. 

Human Rights Watch urged the Labor Ministry to immediately suspend the process of revising Prakas 21 and instead undertake a transparent and thorough examination of problems with union registration in close consultation with independent unions, the International Labour Organization, and labor rights experts. Labor officials should ensure that changes to the regulations facilitate, rather than obstruct union registration, and ensure respect for the right to freedom of association under the Cambodian constitution and international human rights law.

“The government should make the union registration process transparent, fair, and quick,” Robertson said. “Adding bureaucratic hurdles that give more time to unscrupulous factory management to retaliate against union representatives would be a serious setback for workers’ rights in Cambodia.”

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