Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
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. The law, however, limits 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.
Onerous union registration rules 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. The law also specifies that only unions that have “most representative status” (MRS)–the largest union in a workplace, provided it also represents at least 30 percent of workers in an enterprise–may represent workers in collective bargaining. 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.
As of September the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training had issued eight sets of implementing regulations to the 2016 Law on Trade Unions; at least one more remained unissued. In July, for example, the ministry issued a regulation clarifying that all trade unions can represent their members in collective dispute resolution processes. The ministry also issued a regulation on the election of shop stewards, as well as regulations requiring unions and employer associations to submit two annual reports to their members and the ministry, one on finance and one on its activities. Many unions expressed concern they would not be able to comply with the financial reporting regulations, which require all local unions to maintain daily, weekly, and annual financial records, as well as physical copies of all receipts. Union representatives feared local chapters would not have adequate capacity to meet the requirements.
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 conciliation, mediation, and 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 Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers are liable to criminal penalties if they block entrances or roads, or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. Once a union has successfully carried out a strike vote, which requires the consent of a majority of voting members, with 50 percent of union members forming a quorum, the court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.
Government 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 had affiliation with the ruling party, and only a minority were affiliated with opposition parties or worked independently.
The resolution of collective disputes was also inconsistent, largely due to a provision in the Law on Trade Unions that was interpreted to allow only MRS unions to represent members in collective disputes. After the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a regulation in July clarifying minority unions could represent their members in collective dispute resolution procedures, the Arbitration Council–an independent body that hears and resolves collective labor disputes–resolved at least one collective dispute brought by a non-MRS union; however, some activists complained the regulation goes too far in interpreting the law, to the point of contradicting it. Prior to July the number of cases reaching the independent Arbitration Council had dropped from more than 30 per month prior to the Law on Trade Unions being passed to approximately two per month afterwards, causing many outside observers to express concerns.
Individual labor disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent. There is no specialized labor court. The Arbitration Council requested that the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training permit it to run a pilot project adjudicating certain types of individual disputes, although unions expressed concern the government considers collective disputes as individual disputes in order to diminish the value of union membership.
Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to free 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; the Cambodian Labor Confederation reported at least 20 union leaders faced criminal charges.
In July the Phnom Penh municipal court dropped “breach of trust” charges against prominent labor activist Mouen Tola, which outside observers believed were politically motivated, and for which he faced a large fine and a maximum three years’ imprisonment. The court dismissed the case after an international outcry.
Reports continued of other forms of harassment; for instance police raided at least one labor advocacy NGO twice since July, reportedly searching for registration papers, tax documents, foreign worker visas, and proof of a building lease. Some unions and NGOs reported that government officials pressured their property owners to break the organization’s lease. Several unions reported harassment and intimidation from local government officials while attempting to hold routine meetings and workshops–particularly in the period preceding the July election.
Some employers reportedly refused, with impunity, to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew the 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 that 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 kept registration applications in abeyance indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice had decreased by midyear, particularly for garment and footwear sector unions. The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Confederation (BWTUC), on the other hand, successfully registered in August on its fifth attempt, after having initially filed its application in January. As of November only 12 of its 42 local union members had been able to register.
Unionization rates varied across economic sectors. In the hospitality industry, it approached 20 percent. In the formal apparel and footwear sector, despite the great number of unions, unionization rates were estimated at only 20-30 percent. Many of these unions represented the interests of factory owners and the CPP over those of workers. In 2017 a BWTUC study showed only 9 percent of 1,010 construction workers across Phnom Penh worksites belonged to a union or association.
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 failed to renew the short-term contracts of active unionists; in others they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. The union movement did not generally find government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals effective.
The 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 ILO-International Finance Corporation Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program found ongoing concerns with workers’ ability to form and join unions freely, management interference with unions, and employer control of unions. The BFC’s coverage was limited to the export sector, so the actual level of union harassment was likely significantly higher, particularly in unregistered factories.
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 particular 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.
Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor domestically, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear. Moreover, there was some evidence employers worked with local law enforcement authorities to subject workers to bonded labor, including in the brick industry. For example a 2016 report from the local human rights NGO LICADHO highlighted reports of child and bonded labor in brick kilns, including some evidence that employers used local authorities to keep workers in bonded labor. Although the government initially denied the reports and threatened to prosecute individuals for defamation if the report was proven untrue, in May the National Committee for Counter Trafficking reported it had shut down three brick factories for child labor violations and was investigating as many as 100 more.
Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to the findings of a BWTUC survey conducted in 2017, 48 percent of 1,010 construction workers in Phnom Penh had debts; 75 percent of the debtors owed money to microfinance or banks, and 25 percent owed money to family members.
Forced labor, usually related to overtime work, occurred in six of 395 export-sector textile and apparel factories, approximately the same rate as in 2017. Workers were required to obtain written approval from foreign supervisors before they could leave the factory and complained they feared termination if they 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 www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law establishes 15 years as the minimum age for employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. The law permits children between ages 12 and 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 work by children between ages 12 and 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. Minimum age protections do not apply to domestic workers.
The law stipulates fines of 31 to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions. In 2017 the Department of Child Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, received funding from the government for the first time. The government appropriated 40 million riel ($10,000) for child labor enforcement operations and implementation of the National Social Protection Strategy, although none of the stakeholders involved in counter-child labor efforts believed this amount was sufficient. The department employed 33 inspectors based in Phnom Penh and one child labor inspector in each of the country’s 25 provinces. 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. The department began unannounced complaints-based and follow-up inspections during the year, although these were infrequent. In 2017 the government imposed penalties on 42 occasions for child labor violations, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labor in the country.
Inadequate training limited the capacity of local authorities to enforce these regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors, and the thoroughness of inspections was questionable. For example ministry inspectors visited various brick factories in 2017 but found no child labor violations, despite numerous reports of children working in brick factories. In addition sanctions for labor violations, including those related to child labor, were rarely imposed in accordance with the law.
Children were vulnerable to involvement in the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (also see section 6, Children). 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 subjected to forced begging.
Child labor in export-sector garment and footwear factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from the BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC had found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 800 factories. In its latest synthesis report for May 1, 2017-June 30, 2018, the BFC discovered 10 cases of children younger than age 15 working in factories.
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, or union membership. Two separate laws explicitly prohibit discrimination against HIV-positive persons. 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. Fines for workplace discrimination ranged from 2.5 to 3.6 million riels ($625 to $900).
Women and men continued to face employment discrimination in various industries. According to a BWTUC survey, daily wages for male construction workers was 20.2 percent higher than for women performing similar work. In the garment and footwear sector, the BFC reported factory management discriminated heavily against men in hiring and benefits due to perceived behavioral problems, and generally without legal consequence. The BFC reported 7 percent of export-licensed factories discriminated based on gender in their hiring decisions, while 2 percent reportedly terminated or forced pregnant women to resign.
In a January report, the BFC found that 37 factories (8 percent of the national total) had negligible discriminatory practices, 10 factories did not dismiss pregnant women, and eight factories did not discriminate against workers based on union membership.
Harassment of women was widespread. A large-scale research project conducted by Care International found that one-third of women in the garment industry suffered some form of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. According to a BFC report in March, more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in the factory, and 40 percent of workers did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Prior to June the law did not mandate a minimum wage for any sector except the garment sector. The Law on the Minimum Wage passed in June expands the minimum wage to cover new sectors or the entire formal economy, although there are no time-bound requirements for the law to do so; the new provisions had not entered into effect during the year. The Law on Minimum Wage also establishes a National Minimum Wage Council with representatives from the government, unions, and employer organizations to conduct research into and provide recommendations on the minimum wage. As of November the government had not clarified how membership of the new tripartite wage body would be chosen. Informal-economy worker associations and civil society organizations criticized the law for failing to cover workers in the informal economy. The minimum wage for 2019, however, was set in October under the old Labor Advisory Council system, which sets wages only for the garment and footwear sector. The minimum wage was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.
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.
In June, after at least nine factories shut their doors abruptly in the first half of the year without paying more than 88 billion riel ($22 million) in wages due or required severance payments to workers, the government amended the law to eliminate severance for employees on unlimited duration contracts. Instead, the amended law requires payments equal to 15 working days’ wages, paid every six months, to all employees on unlimited duration contracts.
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 necessary cooperation of police, but there are no specific provisions to protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to conduct thorough inspections. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. The government did not effectively enforce working-hour and overtime regulations. Outside the 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 implicitly relied upon the BFC to do so in export-oriented garment factories.
Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10 including overtime. Workers often faced fines, dismissal, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime. 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 24 months. Employers regularly hired workers on fixed duration contracts–most often of three-month duration–indefinitely. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training interpreted the law to allow for such serial short-term contracts, provided there was some break in employment every 24 months. The Arbitration Council and the ILO disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee must be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract.” (Also see section 7.a.).
An April 2017 survey conducted by the BWTUC estimated there were 200,000 citizens working in the construction industry; 89 percent of 1,010 respondents did not have contracts, most never received bonuses or severance pay, and only 9 percent were enrolled with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). Work-related injuries and health problems were common. Most large garment factories producing for markets in developed countries met relatively high health and safety standards as conditions of their contracts with buyers. Working conditions in small-scale factories and cottage industries were poor and often failed to meet international standards. The Department of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) reported 2,533 work-related injuries in the first six months of the year, up slightly from 2017; of these injuries, 444 were the result of road accidents, since employers often transported garment workers to and from work in the back of unsafe open-bed trucks.
Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF reported 1,350 workers fainted in 13 factories in the first six months of the year, up from 415 workers fainting in eight factories in the same period in 2017. There were no reports of serious injuries due to fainting. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticide in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from the production process all contributed to mass fainting.
The BFC reported that complying with OSH standards was a growing challenge in the garment export sector largely due to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities. The BFC reported increased noncompliance in every OSH variable measured, including exposure to chemicals and hazardous substances, emergency preparedness, OSH management systems, welfare facilities, worker environment, worker protection, and worker accommodations.