Union Draft Law Clears Cambodian Senate

While the ruling CPP says a law reigning in unions is necessary, the opposition worries it will hamstring organized labor.

Cambodian People's Party Senator Mam Bun Neang speaks to reporters after the Senate approved the union draft law.

The Cambodian Senate has overwhelmingly approved new controversial labor legislation that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party says is necessary to regulate trade unions, but opponents say is just a way to dilute workers’ power.

After about two hours of debate, 40 out of the 46 senators voted on Tuesday to approve the measure without making any changes. All the lawmakers that voted to approve the legislation were members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.

During the debate, however, You Seangheng, a Sam Rainsy Party senator, asked the senate to send the measure back to the National Assembly, saying the legislation would restrict union rights to protest or hold demonstrations.

“The draft law needs to be amended at least fifty percent,” he said in a floor speech. “There are still many loopholes. Unions’ recommendations have not been accepted, and I request the senate return the draft law back to the assembly.”

Critics of the legislation, including domestic and international human rights groups as well as Asian parliamentarians, have expressed concern over provisions that force unions to report their finances to the government and increase authorities’ power to close down labor groups.

But CPP Senator Mam Bun Neang told reporters that You Seangheng’s arguments are groundless. He said that the draft law will protect both employees and employers.

“This is the opposition party’s habit," he said. "They oppose everything, but if we look into the law in context, the draft law is lawful."

Ministry of Labor Ith Samheng also defended the measure during the debate, saying the draft law wouldn’t allow the government to persecute unions over protests or demonstrations, but will stop people from provoking chaos.

“Unlike what some politicians have said, the government is not afraid of demonstrations,” he said. “But it is important that all demonstrations comply with the law.”

The legislation will be sent to the Constitutional Council for a review before sending to the King for final approval.

Though the legislation has won approval, it has also been the target of protests that turned violent earlier in the month as the National Assembly began considering the legislation.

There are some 3,400 trade unions in Cambodia. The CPP, with the backing of garment factory owners, want to restrict unions as they blame them for the poor labor relations they claim threaten 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.

Reported by Tha Vuthy for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.