Spotlight interview with Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC – Cambodia)
Brussels, 27 September 2007 (ITUC OnLine): Independent unions have it tough in Cambodia. Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation CLC (1) can testify to it: dismissals, death threats, … their members are confronted with the whole arsenal of antiunion repression deployed by employers and the authorities. “Yellow” unions add to the confusion. Interview.
What are the biggest obstacles facing independent unions in Cambodia?
The first obstacle is interference by the government and employers, who try to establish yellow unions to delude the workers and create confusion. When we announce the formation of a union at a factory, the employers’ response, for example, is to dismiss our candidates for trade union posts and encourage the formation of yellow unions. We find ourselves in situations where there are as many as seven different unions in a single factory, which obviously complicates the task of collective bargaining.
The second obstacle is the danger faced by workers joining independent unions. Hired thugs operate in many industrial zones, making it very dangerous for us to visit the workers in their lodgings. Two organisers from our garment union, the CCAWDU, have found themselves surrounded by between 30 and 50 thugs when visiting a community of workers by motorbike. Three trade unionists have been murdered over the last few years, but there has been no genuine investigation into these crimes. We receive anonymous death threats to fill us will fear and hesitation, to try and weaken our resolve to increase our membership base.
A third obstacle is the workers’ lack of education. Cambodians are rarely able to pursue their education for long. The education system in Cambodia is a serious problem. In the garment sector, for example, there are workers who cannot even read or write their own name. It’s very difficult to organise these workers, because the time and resources we can devote to training are limited. The CLC’s membership is growing, but we don’t offer enough services. We need to be able to offer more training.
Another serious obstacle is the amount of workers on short-term contracts. It’s very difficult to organise workers who only have contracts for one or two months. Some employers also use this type of contract to “punish” workers who join a union.
In the past, a number of employers obtained court rulings ordering trade unionists to pay enormous amounts in damages after taking strike action. Is this still the case?
We haven’t been confronted with cases of this kind recently, but employers continue to petition the courts to break strikes. Employers take a step-by-step approach to the violation of trade union rights. They start by punishing trade union members and shop stewards by placing them on short-term contracts. Then they put pressure on their families, by taking any promotions away from these trade unionists or cutting their wages. The next step is to file legal action against the trade union leaders. This is accompanied, in the meantime, by threats against the workers. Some employers also offer the trade union representatives bribes. Corruption is also a major obstacle to organising workers in independent trade unions. Employers place the workers in desperate situations and then try to buy them off. The Cambodian labour legislation stipulates that such acts are illegal.
Have you yourself received any threats recently?
This year, prior to the resolution of the River Rich case (2), when negotiations were still underway, we discovered that I was being followed by armed individuals. They would wait for me, every day, outside my office and follow me to the place where the negotiations were being held, for example. I hadn’t realised at first, but the moto-taxi drivers parked near my office saw these armed men coming everyday, waiting and following me. It was then that I realised. At the moment, those two people are not following me anymore, but it could be that they have asked others to take over. You must understand that given the murders and violence committed against trade unionists here, we take such threats very seriously. They also started by using such scare tactics against Chea Vichea and Hy Vuthy, before going on to murder them. It’s a serious concern for the CLC, which wants to remain an independent union. We not only talk about these threats to the authorities and organisations here in Cambodia but also in the international community. It’s important that people realise the dangers we face.
Have you also received verbal threats or threatening text messages, as Chea Vichea did prior to his murder?
Yes. During the negotiations at Winner Garments Ltd., we had to deal with a yellow union, the Khmer Youth Trade Union, which has links with people in high places. It’s leader behaved as if he was representing the employer or the government rather than the workers. He threatened our negotiators and gave them a CD about the trade unions attacked by the government. That was in June, shortly after the resolution of the River Rich case (the two companies are owned by the same people). The aim of this yellow union is to stop us from carrying out any activities in this factory, but we have just formed a union there in spite of everything. The workers want a rise in their piecework rate and contacted us for support.
What’s the situation now regarding the minimum wage, which was recently the subject of lengthy negotiations?
The minimum wage only exists in the garment, textile and leather sector.
The minimum wage negotiations carried out in 2006 came to a close; we obtained a 5 dollar increase, bringing the minimum wage to 50 dollars a month, but were asking for 80 dollars. The yellow unions are to blame for such a small increase: they didn’t cooperate with us at all, but sided with the Labour Minister to undermine the negotiating procedure. We don’t want to associate with this type of union, it’s a waste of time.
What kind of wage is needed to support a family in Cambodia?
Inter-union research, supported by the ILO, has been carried out in the garment sector. It found that workers living in a city and having to send money back to their families in rural areas need to earn at least 82 dollars a month.
Interview by Samuel Grumiau
(1) The CLC has four affiliates representing a total of 43,600 members: CCAWDU (38,000 members, garment sector union), CTSWF (3,900 members, tourism, hotel and service industry union), IDEA (1,100 members, informal economy association) and CICA (600 members, public workers’ association).