The law provides for 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 strikers 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 to conduct union activities 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 issuance, it automatically becomes binding. Individual disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system is neither impartial nor transparent.
Workers reportedly experienced obstacles in exercising their right to associate freely, as some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters that serve to recognize a union officially. In addition, workers in the garment sector were hired as subcontractors, making unionization difficult. Enforcement of the right of association and freedom from anti-union discrimination was inconsistent. Acts of anti-union discrimination, intimidation, and retaliation by employers often went unpunished. The government’s willingness to address violations of worker rights was sometimes limited 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 act independently and sometimes did not report cases of union discrimination to the government. The government also did not devote sufficient resources to enforcement, particularly the provision of training and resources to ensure a functioning labor inspectorate.
The government’s enforcement of collective bargaining rights was inconsistent. The MOLVT formally warned 134 companies of legal violations as of June. Although the MOLVT often decided in favor of employees, it rarely used its legal authority to penalize employers who defied its orders. During the first six months of 2013, the MOLVT reported it received 68 cases of non-strike-related disputes, and its Department of Labor Disputes reportedly resolved 16 of these cases successfully. During this same period, there were 36 strike-related complaints filed with the MOLVT, of which nine cases were resolved successfully. The Department of Labor Disputes sent the 79 unresolved cases to the Arbitration Council. 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. From January to June, the Arbitration Council received 132 cases, of which 32 involved strikes.
The majority of unions were affiliated with the ruling party, although some were affiliated with the opposition party and a few independent unions.
Organization among public-sector workers continues to face significant obstacles. The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association is 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 their affiliation with the teachers association could hamper career advancement. Another public-sector association, the Cambodian Independent Civil Servants Association, alleged that fear of harassment, discrimination, or demotion deterred individuals from joining.
The government allowed most strikes held at factories but denied worker requests to hold protest marches outside factory areas.
During the first six months of the year, police intervened when garment workers blocked major thoroughfares in Phnom Penh. In May more than 20 persons were injured when police and striking factory workers clashed outside the Sabrina Garment factory. During the course of their strike for additional benefits, the workers blocked a major highway, which led to intervention by the police. Seven workers were hospitalized, including a pregnant protester who miscarried, although the cause of the miscarriage was not definitively established. In November violence broke out at a march by protesting garment workers from the SL Garment Processing factory when workers set fire to police vehicles and attacked police officers assigned to detour the march. In response authorities used fire hoses, tear gas, and live ammunition in an attempt to disperse the crowd. The clash led to one fatality from gunfire and nine individuals seriously injured. Police arrested approximately 40 people, and all but two of them were released within one day.
On June 25, the Svay Rieng Provincial Court convicted and sentenced in absentia former Bavet Governor Chhouk Bandith to 18 months in jail for shooting into a group of approximately 5,000 protesting garment workers and wounding three women. As of October, Chhouk Bandith remained a fugitive.
There were credible reports of anti-union harassment by employers, including the dismissal of union leaders in garment factories and other enterprises. In some factories the management appeared to have established or supported pro-management unions or compromised union leaders by jeopardizing their employment.
Despite 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 viewed as 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.
In October 2012, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia and eight union federations signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that many observers believed would lead to more collective bargaining and fewer strike actions. The MOU committed factories and workers to accept the rulings of the Arbitration Council. The signatories to the MOU convened quarterly meetings in February, June, and October to discuss implementation of the MOU and enforcement of Arbitration Council rulings.