(New York) – The Cambodian government should revise the draft trade union law submitted to the National Assembly to ensure it fully protects all workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should promptly set a date for a “national workshop” with “all relevant parties,” to which it agreed after trade unions raised objections to the draft law, and ensure the meeting is transparent and participatory.

Members of parliament attend a plenary session at the Cambodia National Assembly in Central Phnom Penh on December 16, 2015.

“While the latest draft Trade Union Law improves on previous versions, it still falls far short of protecting the rights of workers and their unions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Too many provisions could easily be abused by the government and employers, so donors should press for genuine consultations to substantially revise the draft.”

The draft Trade Union Law has been under consideration since 2008. It has been the subject of discussions over the years with unions, employers’ associations, and the International Labour Organization (ILO), most recently in mid-2015. Despite calls by workers and unions for further consultations to resolve key issues, the cabinet on November 13, 2015, adopted the current draft and sent it to the National Assembly for approval.

While the latest draft Trade Union Law improves on previous versions, it still falls far short of protecting the rights of workers and their unions. Too many provisions could easily be abused by the government and employers, so donors should press for genuine consultations to substantially revise the draft.

Brad Adams

Asia director

A March 2015 Human Rights Watch report found the Cambodian government is failing to protect garment workers producing for international apparel brands from serious labor rights abuses. The predominantly women workers often experience forced overtime, pregnancy-based discrimination, and anti-union practices that neither the government nor major brands adequately addressed.

In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 7, Human Rights Watch raised a number of concerns about the draft law at that time and urged the government to bring it into conformity with international labor and human rights standards. Cambodia has ratified all the core ILO labor conventions, including Conventions No. 87 (freedom of association) and No. 98 (right to organize and collectively bargain), but implementation has been poor.

The draft approved by the cabinet in November incorporates a number of important changes that bring the text closer to conformity with international standards, including by lowering the number of workers needed to form a union and also lowering the age, educational level, and work longevity record requirements for union leaders who are “Khmer Citizens.” The draft also brings down the quantitative threshold for a union to achieve “most representative status” and eliminates a range of arbitrary powers previously granted to ministerial authorities to suspend union registration, while bringing a wider set of decisions about labor rights under the power of an existing Arbitration Council and envisaged Labor Courts.

However, the current draft Trade Union Law still raises many concerns. The law contains extremely vague prohibitions against unions making it unlawful for them to act “contrary to public order,” to “cause trouble with the only objective of being of service to a political tendency,” or to “bring about a traffic jam.” Such provisions are easily open to arbitrary or politically-motivated interpretations by the courts that would infringe upon the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, and should be removed from the draft.

The law stipulates that 50 percent plus one of workers must be present to even hold a general assembly, while a vote of only 50 percent plus one of members is required for the union itself to be dissolved. Both passages should be revised to ensure they will not open the way for anti-union application.

The draft provides no protections to Cambodia’s domestic and other informal workers, who are legally left highly vulnerable to exploitation and ill-treatment at work, including physical and sexual abuse. The law should be amended to include them.

The draft should also eliminate discriminatory residency and work longevity requirements to be applied against foreigners, violating their rights to become union leaders. Various other onerous bureaucratic requirements for maintaining or obtaining union registration remain in place, including the need to provide detailed financial reporting to the Ministry overseeing labor matters. These requirements should be eliminated or eased, as should extensive provisions allowing for bureaucratic delay of registration.

A more fundamental problem is that the ever-tightening control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party over Cambodia’s judiciary raises serious concerns that the envisaged Labor Courts will not be sufficiently independent to render fair and impartial judgments on the many matters over which the draft law gives them jurisdiction. These include ruling on the legality of strikes and lockouts and of ministerial and workers’ requests for dissolution of unions.

With Cambodia’s political situation in flux, it remains unclear whether or when the promised “national workshop” on the draft will be conducted or who will participate. The workshop’s relationship to discussions on the law between the ruling party and opposition in the National Assembly either in a proposed special bipartisan committee and during normal National Assembly deliberations have yet to be determined.

“The government needs to allocate sufficient time and ensure full participation by all concerned parties in a serious public consultative process to deal with the many problems in the draft Trade Union Law,” Adams said. “This is an absolute minimum requirement Cambodia’s donors should insist on.”