The law, including related regulations and statutory instruments, protects the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice without prior authorization, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively. While unions may affiliate freely, the law does not explicitly address their right to affiliate internationally.
The law requires trade unions to file their charters and lists of their officials with the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MOLVT). The Bureau of Labor Relations is responsible for facilitating the process of union registration and certification of “most representative status” for unions, which entitles a union representing a majority of workers in a given enterprise to represent all the workers in that establishment.
Civil servants, including teachers, judges, and military personnel, as well as household workers, do not have the right to form or join a trade union. Personnel in the air and maritime transportation industries are free to form unions but are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from the limitations on work hours prescribed by the labor law.
The law stipulates that workers can strike only after several requirements have been met, including the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as negotiation, conciliation, or arbitration), a secret-ballot vote of the union membership, and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the MOLVT. There is no law prohibiting strikes by civil servants, workers in public sectors, or workers in essential services. Legal protections are in place to guard workers from reprisal.
Regulations on collective bargaining require unions to demonstrate that they represent workers for the purpose of bargaining collectively. The regulations grant collective bargaining rights to unions with most representative status and require employers to negotiate if such a union proposes a collective bargaining agreement. These regulations also bind both parties to agree to an orderly bargaining process, make considered and reasonable offers and counteroffers, and require the employer to provide the union with facilities and all information requested by the union that is relevant to the bargaining process. The law also provides union leaders with additional protection from dismissal.
Unresolved labor disputes may be brought to the Arbitration Council, an independent state body that interprets labor regulations in collective disputes, such as when multiple employees are dismissed. The parties may choose whether to consider the council's decisions as binding. If neither party objects to the arbitral award within eight days of its being issued, it automatically becomes binding. Individual disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent.
Workers reportedly experienced obstacles in exercising their right to associate freely, as some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters which serve to recognize a union officially. In addition, workers in Cambodia’s garment sector were hired as subcontractors, making unionization difficult. Enforcement of the right of association and freedom from antiunion discrimination was inconsistent. Acts of antiunion discrimination, intimidation, and retaliation by employers often went unpunished. Government enforcement of worker rights was sometimes hampered by close relationships among government officials, employers, and union leaders. These relationships deterred union leaders from reporting cases of discrimination and hampered the independent operation of unions. Union leaders affiliated with the government did not work independently and sometimes did not report cases of union discrimination to the government. The government also did not devote sufficient resources to enforcement, including having trained, experienced labor inspectors.
The government’s enforcement of collective bargaining rights was inconsistent. The MOLVT formally warned 206 companies of legal violations as of July. Although the MOLVT often decided in favor of employees, it rarely used its legal authority to penalize employers who defied its orders. Instead, the ministry sent 255 cases of unresolved disputes to the Arbitration Council during the year. Some unions urged the government to expand the role of the Arbitration Council to include individual and collective interest disputes and to make its decisions binding. During the year the Arbitration Council received 255 cases from across the country, of which approximately 75 percent were successfully resolved. The success of the Arbitration Council in resolving disputes resulted in both employers and unions encouraging its use.
The majority of unions were affiliated with the ruling party, although there were a few independent unions. On April 26, 62 progovernment union federations and associations established the Cambodian Council of National Unions (CCNU), aimed at unifying all union federations, confederations, and associations to protect the rights and interests of workers, teachers, and individuals in the informal economy. Leaders of independent union federations argued, however, that the pro-government union federations and association would overshadow independent union federations and associations and that these progovernment organizations would not proactively represent their members. In addition, there were concerns that, while progovernment associations would represent teachers, they would not do so proactively. Both progovernment and government-sponsored union federations worked under the guidance and instruction of the government.
Organization among public-sector workers continued to face significant obstacles. The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association registered as an “association” due to prohibitions on public-sector unions, and the government denied its requests for permission to march and protest, although the union reported no direct government interference in day-to-day activities. Some members feared that their affiliation with the association could hamper career advancement. Another public-sector association, the Cambodian Independent Civil Servants Association, alleged that fears of harassment, discrimination, or demotion deterred individuals from joining.
On June 13, the MOLVT refused to grant union status to the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), a conglomerate of seven union federations and associations: the Free Trade Union, the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, the Professor Council Association, the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, the Cambodian Construction Workers’ Trade Union Federation, and the Textile and Garment Workers’ Federation of Cambodia. The MOLVT argued that the CCU did not qualify as a union because it also included associations that were not included in the labor law.
The government allowed most strikes held at factories but denied worker requests to hold protest marches outside the factory area. During the garment strikes that took place during the summer, police only interfered when workers blocked major thoroughfares in Phnom Penh.
There were credible reports of antiunion harassment by employers, including the dismissal of union leaders in garment factories and other enterprises. Approximately 35 union leaders claimed they were dismissed or suspended without cause in the first seven months of the year. In some factories the management appeared to have established or supported promanagement unions or compromised union leaders by jeopardizing their employment.
In spite of legal provisions protecting strikers from reprisals, there were credible reports that workers were dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. While most strikes were illegal, participating in an illegal strike was not by itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers pressured strikers to accept compensation and leave their employment.
Remedies exist for such dismissals, although none were particularly effective. The MOLVT may issue reinstatement orders, but these often provoked management efforts to pressure workers into resigning in exchange for a settlement. At times management failed to obey a court order for reinstatement, as happened to strikers at Tai Yang Enterprises during the summer.