As the Cambodian legislature began considering controversial legislation that seeks to regulate trade unions on Monday, security forces injured at least one union official as they violently broke up a labor demonstration by opponents of the measure.
The clash took place after more than 50 union supporters gathered to protest outside of the national assembly complex in an effort to show lawmakers they are unhappy with the legislation.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen contends that the law is aimed at regulating the country's 3,400 trade unions, labor leaders and human rights groups say it is an attempt to dilute the power of organized labor's power..
The legislation still needed approval by the Senate on Monday afternoon, but its final passage is likely a foregone conclusion as the upper house is dominated by lawmakers from Hun Sen’s Cambodian Peoples’ Party.
Garment factory owners want to restrict the number of unions, blaming them for the poor labor relations they claim threatens to undermine a lucrative sector of the national economy.
Around 700,000 factory workers form the bedrock of Cambodia's $7 billion textile industry, which supplies brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.
Critics of the legislation have expressed concern over provisions that force unions to report their finances to the government and increase authorities’ power to close down labor groups.
The whistle blew
Before the union supporters clashed with police, Daun Penh district authorities blew a whistle as a signal to chase the protesters away from the barricades authorities erected to block the road leading to the national assembly complex.
Suddenly, the security forces pushed the protesters away, telling them to do their protests from the street. When protestors argued with police, security forces beat Sut Chet, a union official from the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.
Sut Chet, whose left eye was injured, said he didn’t provoke the attack by security forces.
“I just went to see them, and they just beat me,” he told RFA. “I didn’t say anything, or curse them. They used both fists and walkie-talkies.”
Another union official, Yang Sophorn, who was also pushed hard by security forces, said the attack further erodes confidence in the Cambodian government.
“We used to have a firm belief that we put our trust and our rights in them because we voted for them to protect us,” she said. “But instead, they did not even protect the people’s interests. That’s because the union laws are laws that will make workers lose their rights, and when we come to protest for those rights back, they just used violence on us.”
Phnom Penh City Hall’s spokesman blamed a group of female union protesters for starting the fracas by grabbing the collar of a security force officer.
““It was not without reason,” he said, adding that the protest was illegal. “What is not allowed by law and what is allowed by law, we should think of those rationally. City Hall always states that a gathering to demonstrate or protest or any gathering for that matter must have permission first.”
Nai Vongda, vice president of the human rights watchdog Adhoc, appealed to the international community to pressure the Cambodian government.
“We saw that the security forces of the Daun Penh district are still behaving violently towards the protesters who protest peacefully,” he told RFA. “We would like to condemn and appeal to the international community to again review their relations and the aide they give to this government, because of their crackdowns on unions and threats to human rights.”
Labor Minister Sam Heng and Pen Panha, who chairs the Committee in Charge of Laws and Justice of the National Assembly, told the assembly that they changed 37 points of 22 articles in the draft law, but they failed to explain what was changed
Lawmaker Ith Sam Heng defended the move, saying approval of the law “shows the close attention by the National Assembly and ensures freedom in vocational organizations and well-being in the trades, which are a core factor of stability in production and attract more investment in Cambodia."
A senior official with the Licadho human rights organization told RFA the changes are just window dressing.
“There are a number of articles that are contrary to international standards because the international standards call for openness for the workers to establish unions without restrictions,” Am Sam Ath said in RFA’s call-in show on Monday.
Reported by Samnang Ramm for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Pganawath Kuhn. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.