The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively. Onerous, new union registration rules amount to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. The National Assembly adopted a new Law on Trade Unions (TUL) in April 2016. Four sets of implementing regulations were issued as of August, but at least five more remained to be issued.
The TUL imposes new limits on the right to strike, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, and permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, while imposing only minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices. New registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The TUL forbids unregistered unions from operating. The TUL also prohibits unions that represent less than one-third of workers from entering collective bargaining agreements or collective dispute resolution mechanisms. Under the TUL civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health care, and informal sectors may only form associations, not trade unions.
The low rate of unionization was demonstrated by a survey conducted in April by the Building and Wood Workers’ Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), which showed that 91 percent of 1,010 construction workers across Phnom Penh worksites did not belong to any union or association. Unionization rates varied dramatically across industries. In hospitality industries unionization approached 20 percent. Even in the formal apparel and footwear sector, union penetration rates were estimated at only 20-30 percent, and many of these unions represented factory and CPP interests above those of workers.
The law stipulates workers can strike only after several requirements have been met, including: the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as negotiation, mediation, or arbitration); completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the union membership; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the labor ministry. Strikers are liable to criminal penalties if they block entrances, roads, or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. The TUL states that a strike decision requires approval by an absolute majority of union members attending a strike meeting, which itself must include an absolute majority of the total union members. Once a union has successfully carried out a strike vote, the court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.
State enforcement of the right to association, including freedom from antiunion discrimination, and of collective bargaining rights, was highly inconsistent. Close relationships among government officials, employers, and union leaders, particularly those operating progovernment unions, limited the government’s willingness to address violations of workers’ rights. These relationships hampered the independent operation of unions, since the majority of the country’s union federations were affiliated with the ruling party, and only a minority were affiliated with the opposition party or worked independently.
Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to associate freely. Some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters to officially recognize unions (a situation for which the government offered no official redress) or to renew the short-term contract employees who had joined unions (approximately 80 percent of workers in the formal manufacturing sector are on short-term contracts). For a union to register, it must also collect documentation from employers and local government officials, who often simply refuse to provide necessary paperwork. Provincial-level labor authorities have reportedly kept registration applications in abeyance indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle. Workers also reported that, in accordance with TUL provisions, unions are unable to register until they provide banking details; yet, many banks will not open accounts for unregistered unions.
Public-sector worker associations continued to face significant obstacles. For example, twice during the year the government denied requests from the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association for permission to march. Another public-sector association, the Cambodian Independent Civil Servants Association, reported fears of harassment, discrimination, and demotion, all of which deterred individuals from joining.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) noted reports of antiunion discrimination by employers through interference with and dismissals of members of independent unions, as well as through creation of employer-backed unions. The 2017 ILO Committee on Application of Standards called on the government to ensure that freedom of association can be exercised in a climate free of intimidation and violence against workers; acts of antiunion discrimination are swiftly investigated and remedied with dissuasive sanctions applied; and workers can register trade unions through simple, objective, and transparent processes.
The resolution of collective disputes was inconsistent, with a recent proliferation of dispute resolution bodies. International brands have commented publicly on how the neutering of a previously effective dispute resolution mechanism led to difficulties, as workers have begun to bring their collective disputes directly to brands for resolution.
Individual labor disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system is neither impartial nor transparent. There is no specialized labor court.
There were credible reports of antiunion harassment by employers, including the dismissal of union leaders in garment factories and other enterprises. Better Factories Cambodia’s (BFC) January Transparency Database Report obtained information from 480 factories working in the export sector and recorded a slight increase in noncompliance with freedom of association rights, including the right of unions to join federations and confederations of their choice; rights of workers to join unions of their choice; coercion of employees to join employer-sponsored unions; and in the number of factories whose management had taken steps to control union activities. BFC recorded a 1 percent increase in the number of factories where workers’ freedom to join and form unions had been violated.
BFC, an ILO program that inspects all factories holding export licenses, found in its May 2016 to April report that 6.8 percent of factories deducted union dues without the free consent of workers, or prevented workers from forming or joining a union by threatening employment termination. BFC’s coverage is limited to the export sector; so the actual level of union harassment was likely significantly higher, particularly in unregistered factories. A survey of garment workers conducted by the Micro-Finance Organization found workers in unregistered unions were also more likely to receive less than minimum wages.
There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. While the majority of strikes were illegal, participating in an illegal strike was not by itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers pressured either union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit, arguing that their short-term contracts had ended. The union movement did not generally find government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals effective.