(New York) – Cambodia’s draft trade union law would violate the right to organize and be a major step backwards for workers, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Cambodia’s donors and global brands that source garments and other products from Cambodia should call on the government to ensure that any legislation on unions meets international standards and is considered only after full and meaningful public consultation.

The Cambodian government has told the media that the trade union law will be enacted in 2015, yet has not made a draft public or provided opportunities for feedback from workers, unions, or the public. The last government consultation over the trade union bill was in May 2014, but Human Rights Watch has obtained an October 2014 draft of the law, which fails to meet international standards. The government should withdraw the draft law from consideration, publicly disclose the current draft, and consult with experts, trade union members, and others to revise it to comply with international labor rights standards before resubmitting it for consideration.

“Cambodia has long been in the international spotlight for wage protests, attempts to break up unions, excessive use of force against protesting workers, and repeated mass fainting in factories,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the government is proposing a law that would trample workers’ rights to organize and allow the government to shut down independent unions. Instead, the government should engage in meaningful public consultation and work with experts to come up with a new draft that meets international standards.”  

The draft law sets an unreasonably high minimum threshold for the number of workers who must join before a union can be formed, Human Rights Watch said. The bill contains eligibility criteria for union leadership that discriminate against women and non-nationals, and are dangerously vague, facilitating misuse by factory owners. The draft also gives sweeping powers to Labor Ministry officials to suspend union registration on flimsy grounds and without due process.

Cambodia faces a potentially daunting trade environment in the years ahead, Human Rights Watch said. The new European Union Generalized System of Preferences that entered into force in 2014, combined with the Free Trade Agreements being negotiated between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries and the EU, could have a detrimental impact on Cambodia. Similarly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), if finalized, will include Vietnam and may prompt business partners to relocate to TPP countries. More reputational harm risks slowing Cambodia’s economic growth, Human Rights Watch said.

“Adopting a bad trade union law is not just bad for workers, it’s bad for Cambodia’s global image and jeopardizes the country’s economic lifeline – the garment industry,” Robertson said. “A dubious trade union law may make global brands think twice about investing or keeping their operations in Cambodia.”