Workers gather as they rally to mark May Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Workers gather as they rally to mark May Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Hundreds of Cambodian workers gathered in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday to passionately call for higher wages, better working conditions and greater labor rights. But this year’s rally was thin on the ground compared with previous mobilizations due to state intimidation, witnessed in the heavy police corridor that surrounded the rally.

“I don’t feel safe coming, but I felt I had to,” said one young female demonstrator about the heavy police presence surrounding the rally. “Every year I come and that will not change it,” said her garment factory worker colleague while nodding towards the police.

Phnom Penh authorities stopped a proposed march from the city’s iconic Wat Phnom Buddhist temple to the National Assembly, though a handful of lawmakers met the demonstrators to accept a petition calling for various labor reforms.

These are hard times for Cambodia’s trade union movement, long recognized as Southeast Asia’s most vocal and successful. Cambodia’s lurch towards autocracy, seen most visibly in last November’s dissolution of the main opposition party, has more discreetly targeted trade unions.

Cambodia’s new working classes, including over 800,000 garment industry workers, have for years been seen as loyal to the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s only viable opposition party.

Dozens of unions were aligned with the party before it was shut down last November by the Supreme Court, while some of the country’s most prominent unionists cut their teeth alongside political opposition figures during the 1990s.

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

As such, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government remains suspicious that unionists could stir trouble or sway the opinion of urban-based voters ahead of July’s general election, which the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is guaranteed to win without the CNRP’s participation.

In recent months, unionists have been arrested for organizing what they say are legitimate strikes. For example, four union leaders of the Workers Friendship Union Federation were imprisoned in February after allegedly organizing an “illegal” strike and inciting violence at a textile plant in Kandal province, near the capital.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the number of strikes nationwide has been falling since 2016, when the Trade Union Law was enacted. Critics say the law has curtailed workers’ ability to form representative associations and unions.

Cambodia’s trade union movement took off in the late 1990s, alongside and sometime intertwined with growing political opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule. Things came to a head in 2013 following a general election that the now-dissolved CNRP claimed it had won.

Thousands of workers joined the CNRP-led protests, while their respective unions soon began appealing for a raise in the minimum wage, with protests and strikes lasting for months and leading to a ten-day nationwide strike in January 2014.

The strike came to a fatal halt that month after five workers were shot dead by security forces.

Garment workers hold petrol bombs after clashes broke out during a protest in Phnom Penh, January 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

The violent episode coincided with the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Chea Vichea, the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), an independent union, and a prominent architect of the country’s union movement.

In the years that followed, government attempts to bring down the independent trade union movement have largely succeeded. By 2015, the Cambodia Labor Confederation (CLC), led by prominent unionist Ath Thorn, was one of the last remaining independent union associations in the country.

The other major federations are known to be closely aligned with Hun Sen’s ruling CPP and hardly considered independent.

One union leader who requested anonymity said that many of his independent peers were pressured into defecting to the CPP-aligned unions after the CNRP’s dissolution in November. He said that independent unions can barely operate any more, while officials from government-linked unions often have safe and well-paid positions.

Hun Sen is said to have warned union leaders at a closed-door meeting last month not to organize protests ahead of July’s general election and to cooperate with the government, reported the Phnom Penh Post, a local newspaper.

Hun Sen also apparently issued personal warnings against CLC leader Ath Thorn and former trade unionist Rong Chhun, both of whom are noted for their continued vocal activism while others have gone silent. Ath Thorn was a passionate speaker at Tuesday’s May Day rally but steered clear of politics in his speech.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) poses for a picture during a ceremony at a compound of factories in Phnom Penh on September 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

While effectively dividing the labor movement, pro-CPP unions have assisted the government in other ways. In December, 100 government-aligned unions, including notably the Cambodian Union Federation, filed a lawsuit against former FTUWKC leader Chea Mony, the brother of murdered activist Chea Vichea.

Chea Mony had reportedly called on Western nations to sanction the Cambodian government for the CNRP’s dissolution, a call the lawsuit claimed was an appeal for “workers [to] hate the government and rise up against it.”

CNRP president Kem Sokha and prominent civil society leaders have been arrested for “treason” in recent months after being accused of trying to orchestrate a “color revolution” to topple Hun Sen’s regime.

Prohibitive bureaucracy and legal restrictions have also hobbled independent unions.

In December, Monica Wong, of the International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest trade union federation, said that around 80 of Cambodia’s independent unions have been prevented from registering with the Labor Ministry as required under the new Trade Union Law.

One vague and punitive clause of the law states that only unions with “most representative status” can represent workers during industrial actions.

This means that a union has to represent at least half of all workers in a factory, for example, in order to be allowed to take part in collective bargaining negotiations. If they don’t abide by the rule, then their industrial action is considered “illegal” with potential jail penalties for organizers.

Workers hold Cambodian flags and signs as they rally to mark May Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Some prominent union leaders say they are now too scared to participate in industrial actions for fear of being arrested. Others contend it is simply better to stay away from strikes which would likely be targeted by authorities if certain known union leaders participate.

Small wonder, then, that the number of labor disputes has fallen sharply since the new law came into effect. Local media reports state that the number of cases filed to the Arbitration Council, a body formed to resolve labor disputes, fell by 81% in 2017 compared to the previous year.

There has been some reprieve for unionists. A previous draft to the proposed universal minimum wage law – designed to create a national minimum wage for all workers – contained two punitive clauses that would have imposed fines on those who put “illegal pressure” on the wage discussion process.

Labor activists claimed this was legal shorthand for banning their right to assembly. The clauses were removed from the latest copy of the draft law published last month. It’s unclear when the law will be deliberated and potentially passed.

Still, unionists risk losing their role as the main representatives of workers. For months, Hun Sen has made dozens of speeches at the country’s many garment factories, so often that some political observers say they have become his second home.

The national leader spent May Day with 5,000 workers at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, where he handed out roughly US$12.50 in cash to workers he encountered.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Hun Sen is no doubt cognizant that the country’s garment workers have long been loyal to the now-dissolved CNRP. And he is now clearly trying to woo those voters to his side ahead of July’s general election, which the CPP is certain to win but with a potentially embarrassingly low voter turnout, analysts say.

In April, the government announced it would pay the wages of some 2,500 garment workers who were denied salaries after their employers fled the country reportedly to avoid debts and overdue salaries. Hun Sen personally announced the pay pledge in February.

Last year, Hun Sen also promised that the minimum wage for garment workers would be increased in 2018, rising from US$153 to US$170 per month. Then, in March, he publicly stated that his government would increase this higher rate to US$250 per month by 2022.

Some factory owners already reckon that the prevailing minimum wage is prohibitive to profits, with some factory owners threatening to relocate to neighboring Vietnam. Some have already abruptly bolted from the country, leaving workers unpaid.

While Hun Sen clearly understands higher worker wages will benefit him politically, if his government is allowed to dictate the agenda – and not the workers and unions themselves – it could lead to market distortions that undermine the entire sector.

There is also the danger that government support for workers will rise and fall depending if and when it is politically expedient. Without a strong union movement, workers will be left voiceless and dependent on the whims of government after years of fighting for their independent rights.

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