A Cambodian woman gestures during a rally in front of an advertising company in Kandal province March 15, 2011. The protesters said 75 employees were fired by the factory for planning to form a union. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Tue Mar 15, 2011
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia's biggest trade unions on Tuesday demanded a review of a draft law to regulate them, threatening nationwide strikes against what they said were government attempts to weaken the labour movement.
Union leaders and activists said their proposals for the legislation had been ignored and the law would allow the government to block protests, jail leaders, disband unions and prevent new bodies from forming.
The government says it is drafting the law to protect the interests and rights of workers. It follows similar plans to regulate non-governmental organisations, which have outraged rights groups and prompted criticism from the United States.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party is widely accused of abusing its parliamentary majority to pass laws curtailing freedom of expression and leaning on the judiciary to punish critics. The draft legislation for NGOs and unions is seen as a further effort to stifle dissent and entrench its power.
According to the draft law, unions or associations can be dissolved or suspended by court order if there is a complaint against them from a third person or the government. Union leaders face prison terms for organising protests or strikes that are deemed illegal.
"The conditions to even form a union are strict. It is also really easy to dissolve unions and leaders are facing lawsuits or imprisonment over minor union work," said Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodia Labour Confederation.
Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said recommendations of labour groups had been overlooked and warned that 70 percent of the country's 300,000 garment workers would strike if changes were not made.
The garment industry is the third-biggest contributor to Cambodia's $10 billion (6.2 billion pound) economy after agriculture and tourism and factory workers' wages are a key source of income for impoverished rural families. At least 210,000 workers went on strike last year over pay and working conditions.
Cambodia's government has been credited with reducing poverty and boosting economic growth in one of Asia's poorest countries, but critics and aid donors say its democratic institutions remain weak and its human rights record is worsening.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Petty)