Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law broadly provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to strike. Nevertheless, the law puts significant restrictions on the right to organize, limits the right to strike, curbs the right to assemble, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, and imposes minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices.
Onerous registration requirements amount to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades. The law also prohibits workers who have been convicted of a crime from union leadership, management, or administration, and restricts illiterate workers and those younger than age 18 from holding union leadership.
Some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew short-term contract employees who had joined unions. (Approximately 80 percent of workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts.) Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Labor activists reported many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly indefinitely stalled registration applications by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice has decreased, particularly for garment- and footwear-sector unions.
Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to freedom of association. There were reports of government harassment targeting independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision. On May 28, the Appeals Court acquitted six prominent union leaders who had been criminally charged for their alleged involvement in a violent wage protest in 2014. In July, however, the court convicted a newly elected president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union of violence related to protests in 2016.
Reports continued of other forms of harassment. For the first half of the year, some NGOs and unions complained that police were monitoring their activities and intimidating participants by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings (see section 2.b.).
The International Labor Organization (ILO) noted reports of antiunion discrimination by employers through interference with and dismissal of members of independent unions, as well as through the creation of employer-backed unions. Although the law affords protection to union leaders, many factories successfully terminated elected union officials prior to the unions’ attainment of formal registration.
The law stipulates that workers can strike only after meeting several requirements, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the absolute majority of union members; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers can be criminally charged if they block entrances or roads or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. A court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.
There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. Unions initiated most strikes without meeting all the requirements stated above, making them technically illegal, according to Better Factories Cambodia (BFC). Participating in an illegal strike, however, is not in itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of active unionists; in others, they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. Government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals were generally ineffective.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training’s Strike Demonstration Resolution Committee reported that during the first half of the year, 16,585 workers conducted 26 strikes and demonstrations, compared with 28 strikes involving 4,617 workers in the same period of 2018. The report said the committee resolved 16 of the 26 cases successfully while 10 others went to the Arbitration Council.
During the year, the government restricted workers’ right to assembly. On January 2, police pulled down a public display by a group of associations and unions marking the anniversary of a violent government crackdown on a 2014 strike. Phnom Penh municipal authorities initially denied a request by 12 associations and unions to celebrate the March 8 Women’s Day at the National Stadium, but the government eventually allowed these groups to hold a celebration inside the stadium, although it deployed large numbers of riot police to prevent them from leaving the area.
The resolution of labor disputes was inconsistent, largely due to government officials’ ability to classify disputes as “individual” rather than “collective” disputes. The Arbitration Council only hears collective disputes. Unions reported progress in “minority” unions’ ability to represent workers in collective disputes. The Arbitration Council noted it received 68 cases in the first seven months of the year, up from 28 cases for the same period last year, reflecting the ability of minority unions to represent workers in disputes.
There is no specialized labor court. Labor disputes that are designated “individual” disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent.
The law places significant, detailed reporting responsibilities and restrictions on labor unions. Union representatives feared many local chapters would not be able to meet the requirements.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Officials reported difficulties in verifying working conditions and salaries in the informal fishing, agricultural, construction, and domestic-service sectors. Legal penalties for forced labor were stringent, including imprisonment and fines, but these penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear. Moreover, there was some evidence that employers, particularly those operating brick kilns, were violating the law prohibiting forced or bonded labor, and that some local government authorities were turning a blind eye to such abuses. The majority of brick-factory workers did not have access to the free medical care provided by the National Social Security Fund, because those factories were not registered as fund members.
Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to an August report from human rights group LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), two million Cambodians have loans to microfinance lenders, and levels of debt have “skyrocketed” in recent years, leading to child labor and bonded labor. According to a 2017 survey, 48 percent of 1,010 construction workers in Phnom Penh had debts; 75 percent of the debtors owed money to microfinance lending operations or banks, and 25 percent owed money to family members.
Because most construction companies and brick factories operate informally and without registration, workers in those sectors have few benefits. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, lack insurance, and work weekends and holidays with few days off.
Forced labor, usually related to overtime work, remains an issue in factories making products for export. Unions and workers reported some factory managers had fired workers who refused to work overtime.
Children were also at risk of forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for most employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. The law permits children age 12 to 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits most work by children age 12 to 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on nonschool days and it prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In May 2018 the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a regulation that provided clear definitions of household work and set the minimum age for household work at 18. The regulation, however, does not specify rights for household workers employed by relatives. While the regulation extends minimum age protections to domestic workers, the labor code does not apply to children outside of formal employment, so children participating in other forms of informal employment are not protected under existing minimum age laws.
The law stipulates fines of up to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions, but they were not sufficient to deter violations, and such sanctions were rarely imposed.
The Department of Child Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, employed an insufficient number of inspectors to effectively enforce the law. Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial, formal-sector factories producing goods for export, rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. In addition, the National Committee on Countering Child Labor reported the labor inspectorate does not conduct inspections in hospitality or nightlife establishments after business hours because the inspectorate lacks funds to pay inspectors overtime. In 2018 the government imposed penalties on 10 firms for violations of child labor standards, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labor in the country.
Inadequate training also limited the capacity of local authorities to enforce these regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors.
Children were vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (also see section 6, Children). On March 9, a nine-year-old girl lost her arm in a brick-molding machine in a brick kiln in Kandal Province’s Ksach Kandal district. No criminal action was taken against the owner of the brick kiln. Poor access to basic education and the absence of compulsory education contributed to children’s vulnerability to exploitation. Children from impoverished families were at risk because some affluent households reportedly used humanitarian pretenses to hire children as domestic workers whom they abused and exploited. Children were also forced to beg.
Child labor in export-sector garment factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC has found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 550 such factories. In its latest available report for May 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, the BFC discovered only 10 children younger than age 15 working in export garment factories. The BFC and others expressed concern, however, that child labor and other abuses may be more prevalent in factories making footwear and travel goods for export, since these sectors do not fall under BFC’s mandate for monitoring.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, birth, social origin, HIV-positive status, or union membership. The law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease. The constitution stipulates that citizens of either sex shall receive equal pay for equal work.
The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Harassment of women was widespread. A BFC report in March 2018 said more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in their factory, and 40 percent did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. Outside the export garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections on working hours and said they relied upon the BFC to do such inspections in export-oriented garment factories.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, however, did conduct training and testing for more than 600 labor inspectors during the year and stated that each inspector was required to pass a test to stay on the job.
Work-related injuries and health problems were common. On June 23, a Chinese-owned and -designed facility collapsed in Sihanoukville, killing 26 local workers and injuring 26 others. Those victims and their families could not get full compensation from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) because the construction company was not registered.
There was insufficient inspection of construction worksites by the government. Occupational safety and health laws for the construction industry have penalties that are not sufficient to deter violations.
The minimum wage covered only the garment and footwear sector. It was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.
By law workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction, as well as the number of workers affected. Labor ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the cooperation of police, but there are no specific provisions to protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to effectively enforce the law. In June the government ordered provincial officials to inspect brick kilns for child and bonded labor, and it launched a campaign to eliminate child labor in brick kilns by the end of the year.
Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF noted that 417 workers in five factories reportedly fainted during the first six months of the year, down from 1,350 workers during the same period in 2018. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticides in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from production processes all continued to contribute to mass fainting.
Compliance with safety and health standards continued to be a challenge in the garment export sector largely due to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities.
The NSSF reported that during the first half of the year, 24 workers died in traffic accidents on the way to or from work, an increase from eight in the same period in 2018. The accidents injured 920 others, an increase from 62 during the same period in 2018. Workers’ unsafe transportation was a big concern for stakeholders of the garment industry. On April 4, five workers lost their arms in a crash when the truck they were riding on collided with another truck.
Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid certain wage and legal requirements. Fixed duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to terminate the employment of union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of two years, but more recent directives allow employers to extend this period to up to four years. The Arbitration Council and the ILO disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee should be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract.” (Also see section 7.a.).
The law provides for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day. The law establishes a rate of 130 percent of daytime wages for nightshift work and 150 percent for overtime, which increases to 200 percent if overtime occurs at night, on Sunday, or on a holiday. Employees may work a maximum two hours of overtime per day. The law prohibits excessive overtime, states that all overtime must be voluntary, and provides for paid annual holidays. Workers in marine and air transportation are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from limitations on work hours prescribed by law.
Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained that employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10, including overtime. Workers often faced dismissal, fines, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime.