Rights of workers and labor: employee unions, demands

I. Introduction

Cambodia had been impacted by the cold war for almost three decades in its history, and the most miserable event known as genocide on its people during the Khmer Rouge Regime made this nation complete destruction. After that Cambodia had chronic conflicts among its people, so it had no chance to develop its economy. Luckily, under the efforts of ASEAN member states and the United Nations, Cambodia reunited and received back its great honor in the international arena. As a result, it could hold its first election in 1993 which was controlled by the United Nations namely the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. This operation and mission played a very significant role in Cambodia since it provided peace and stability for this country.

Not only did the United Nations think that this operation was successful, but also many Cambodian people did. Through this free and fair election, Cambodia built trust for foreign investments that intended to come and do business. As a nutshell, there has been flow of investments to Cambodia since then; for example, textile industry which was and is one of Cambodia’s most potential sectors prosper significantly. It seems to be that the global governance is better under the United Nations framework; however, when the production is in the process, there are complicated problems occurred, such as workers demand for their rights, employees have conflicts with employers, and the workers strike for resolution, so the main purpose of this essay will deal with those matters.

Moreover, the conflict resolution will also appear in the next part of this essay. Why do workers need to know about their rights, and how many rights do they normally and legally have? Workers want to be aware of their rights in order to avoid any exploitation from their boss; and at same time when they are, they can know about the scope of their work and how they are protected by law. Many workers even look for help from outsiders such as worker federations and other political parties so that those people can assist the workers in terms of law and other procedures related to the field of legislation and regulation. Moreover, there are many concerns taken place among the political parties because they always help workers for their own purpose especially during the election season. Sometimes, the ruling party puts pressure on workers for they support the opposition parties that make the government feels reluctant in solving the conflicts of workers.

Currently, there are some disagreements about wages increase. Based on the multi-agreement made in the late 2009, the base salary for each worker is up from 45 USD up 61USD. However, some workers think that this amount of salary is not enough to support their living due to the fact that the economy faces high inflation, so they decide to hold strikes to demand for increasing salary up to 93 USD per month. This demand seems useless because it does not get support from the government, and the government considers these strikes as illegal because only a small number of workers support the strikes. All these problems are really interesting to me.

II. Why workers need to know their right

Knowing their rights is very fundamental for workers since it will enhance them to be aware of the boundary of their work as well as conditions set by the framework of Cambodian Labor Law (CLL). Moreover, workers can escape from the risk of being exploited by their bosses who are waiting for gaining benefit whenever they can.

a. Types of Workers’ rights and Conditions

There are a lot of kinds of rights stimulating in the labor law of Cambodia, so workers cannot know all aspects of law as mentioned in CLL, but they at least should get aware of some basic rights such as, freedom from child labor, freedom from forced labor, freedom from sex harassment, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and non-discrimination. What is more, workers also ought to know other working conditions related to their job. Those conditions are: wages, hours of work, leave, occupational safety and health, and labor relations.

b. How much workers understand their rights

Illiteracy is considered one of the main factors contributing to lower the understanding of workers on their rights. About 85% of Cambodian population is farmers, and most workers are from this social working- class, so it is really hard for them to acknowledge legal framework. Most of the time, they gather together to form a worker union for protecting their interest from exploitation. To run this union, workers choose a leader from their group to lead so that the chosen leader can act for their cause, and the followers are required to pay 1000 riel per month for the service provided by the leader. To make sure that their leader serves for the group or not, workers have a chance to re-choose a leader by doing simple election. In the case that their rights are abused, the leader must be actively responsible for solving that problem instead of workers in order to show what they have promised with the workers. Therefore, Worker Unions are very important for they help those illiterate workers to be safe from a pressure imposed by both employers and bosses.

c. Demand of workers

Many workers in Cambodia have the same demand as other workers everywhere in the world. They always complain about their rights being abused by their employers, and want to obtain a better working condition in their job environment. The saying that states, “Where there is exploitation and compelling, there is a resistance" seems to echo in their mind, so when there is an unfair treatment from day to day, there must be a violation against that action. Moreover, they also demand for appropriate minimum wages for their survival. For instance, when the government of Cambodia, worker unions, and representatives from apparel factories negotiated in the late 2009 to increase the minimum wages from 45 to 61, there is no consensus among those participants because some union leaders do not agree with this wage-raising for it means nothing for workers to support their living while high inflation is influencing.

III. Employers-employees conflict

The living wage is integral to a social audit. If we want to understand why workers are working excessive overtime, for example, we need to know whether or not workers are able to live decently on the wage they earn for just the regular hours, so failing to pay workers enough to live can have a number of negative consequences. There could be child labor because parents, who are not earning enough, send their children to work. There could be bonded labor because workers who do not earn a living wage have to take loans, which they may struggle to repay.

There could be health and safety issues when even sick workers want extra overtime hours because their normal wage is not a living wage. If workers do not know how their wages are set, they most likely do not have freedom of association and collective bargaining, and if employers do not pay a decent wage and do not value workers, their factories are less likely to have a good management system. Therefore, the conflict always occurs when there is an abuse on their rights such as employers force them to work overtime, workers do not stay still, so they must do something to protect their rights. As a result, conflicts occur because of this action.

a. Causes of conflicts

There are many main causes of conflict in Cambodia textile factories, but I notice that the most important ones are related to labor right abuse, dissatisfaction on working conditions set by employers, and demand for wages increase.

First, labor right abuse is a serious problem of the conflict since workers always suffer from this kind of action. When they have trouble, no one can help them, so the best way to solve their problem is to form a worker union inside their workplace. However, the real problem is that the union leader always concerns about the collective interest of workers or not because sometimes the union leader call for a strike due to his own interest. Moreover, holding a strike can make the union leader get more or less benefit. Besides this, employers are the main actors who bring about conflict for they come to Cambodia to do business, so they always think about benefit or profit all the time. To achieve this, they more or less violate labor rights. As a result, conflict happens.

Second, dissatisfaction on working conditions is considered another cause of conflict. When workers find that those conditions do not serve much their interest but employers, they do not accept. For example, workers demand for having a appropriate place to have food or having clean water to drink, but what happen if these demands are not fulfilled by the employers? Thus, there must be a conflict.

Last but not really least, demand for wage increase is regarded as a core of conflict. Employers want more profit for their business, so when talking increasing salary, they are not happy at all because it will decrease their benefit. As for workers, they do not stay calm when what they have demanded are ignored. They will hold a strike, and what will happen after the strike? We can see both sides will lose benefit.

In short, conflict will never happen only if these three main causes are solved effectively by any peaceful means so that both parties can retain their benefit in this conflictual environment.

b. Impacts of conflicts

Conflict produces many impacts on both employees and employers. For employers are interdependent on employees and vice versa, so when there is no compromise between the two sides there will be a loss. First, employers can not produce their products on time, so they significantly lose, whereas employees are the same facing a loss because they rely on employers who pay them wages. Second, conflict produces adverse cooperation between the two conflicting parties. Third, investors will reconsider other countries such as Vietnam, Africa, and the like where workers’ wages can compare with Cambodia’s, or even is lower than that of Cambodia’s.

All in all, these impacts are really problematic to deal with because they base on a compromise from all actors who are involved.

IV. Mechanism to solve conflicts

A dispute can occur in any workplace no matter how well it is managed. For this reason, employers and employees should anticipate disputes and set up ways of resolving disputes when they occur. Unless an employer and their employees agree to a different system of dispute resolution they must follow the dispute resolution procedure set out in Chapter XII of the Labor Law. According to the Labor Law employers and employees can resolve their disputes in a number of ways. These include: negotiation between employers and employees, conciliation between employers and employees with the help from mediator, arbitration, strike/lockout, and court action.

a. Negotiation between employers and employees

It is considered to be the first step of solving the dispute. In this step, conflicting parties try to solve the problem bilaterally, and they discuss about the demand of workers and what the managers will say to make sure that both parties agree on the conditions raised by workers. Moreover, the steps that employees and employers need to go through to resolve a dispute depend on whether the dispute is collective or individual. For individual disputes, it refers to disputes that involve an employer and one or more employees as individuals. Since it is individual, conflict is easy to solve and quick to reach an agreement between the two sides. But for a collective dispute, it involves a group of employees. If a union is involved in a dispute then it will generally be considered to be a collective dispute. A collective dispute can also involve employees who do not have a union if they act as a group.

Many employers set up workplace level grievance procedures in consultation with their employees so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly. The Labor Law does not require employers to have workplace level grievance procedures, but it does require employers to have a liaison officer who is responsible for resolving employee requests and complaints. However, before appointing the liaison officer, the employer must consult with the representatives of the employees to seek agreement in choosing a neutral and independent person, and the liaison officer must inform the employer if an employee makes a complaint which the officer cannot solve. If the liaison officer cannot resolve a problem, then the employer must meet with the employee or his/her representative. A shop steward or union official may assist the employee at this meeting. If the parties do not reach agreement, they may be required to notify the Labor Inspector for further conciliation.


Conciliation of individual disputes is voluntary: either the employer or the employee may file a complaint with the Ministry in charge of Labor for conciliation of their dispute before going to court. However, if one party requests conciliation of an individual dispute, the other party must also go to the conciliation meeting. If the conciliation results in an agreement, the employer and the employee must implement the agreement. If the conciliation is not successful, the dispute may be filed with the ordinary court. Unless they have agreed on a different dispute resolution procedure, the parties to a collective labor dispute are required to notify the Ministry in charge of Labor of their dispute. The Ministry in charge of Labor must attempt to conciliate collective labor disputes. During conciliation, employees may not go on strike and the employer may not conduct a lock out. An agreement reached during conciliation of a collective dispute must be implemented and the employer must post it in the workplace and in the office of the local Labor Inspectorate.

Arbitration from the government

If conciliation of a collective dispute does not lead to an agreement, the Ministry in charge of Labor will refer the dispute to the Arbitration Council. During arbitration, employees may not go on strike and the employer may not conduct a lockout. The Arbitration Council has refused to hear cases until the parties cease strikes and lockouts. The parties to a dispute which is being heard by the Arbitration Council must attend all meetings to which the arbitrators call them and must also provide all documents and other information which the arbitrators request.

Decisions of the Arbitration Council are called awards. Awards of the Arbitration Council must be implemented unless one of the parties to a dispute objects to the award within 8 days of being notified of it. In this case the award is cancelled. If there is no objection to the award, the employer must post a copy of the award in the workplace and in the office of the local Labor Inspectorate. For more information, see The Arbitration Council and the Process for Labor Dispute Resolution in Cambodia (CLEC/ILO, 2nd ed., 2004). Employees can go on strike to defend their rights and interests but only after all other methods of dispute resolution have failed. In most cases employees will need to try the following forms of dispute resolution before going on strike:

_ negotiation;

_ conciliation; and

_ arbitration.

It is illegal to strike to try to force an employer to revise a CBA or arbitral award which is still in force. Before going on strike employees must follow the procedures set out in the union’s statute. These must include the following requirements: Secret ballot. A strike is not lawful unless the members of the union have approved the strike by secret ballot. A strike is not lawful unless the union gives 7 working days notice of the strike to the employer and to the Ministry in charge of Labor.

Strikes that do not comply with the procedures set out in the Labor Law are illegal. Non-peaceful strikes are also illegal. Only the courts can declare a strike illegal. Any violent acts committed during a strike by either party are serious misconduct. An employer may discipline or dismiss an employee for committing violent acts during a strike. Strikers must allow other employees who want to go to work during a strike to do so. Strikers must not threaten non-strikers. Unless the employer can prove that strikers have committed acts of misconduct, the employer must allow them to return to work without punishment once the strike is over.

Participating in an illegal strike is not, by itself, serious misconduct. However failure to return to work, without valid reason, within 48 hours of a court order is serious misconduct. The Arbitration Council has interpreted this rule about no punishment after a strike to mean that the employer cannot deduct the full $5 regular attendance bonus from employees who participate in a legal strike. In the case of a legal strike, the employer may only deduct the $5 bonus proportionally. For example, if employees conduct a 2 day strike the employer can only deduct the following amount: 2 days x $5/26 days=$0.38 (leaving a bonus of $4.62 if the employee attended as required on all other days in the month).

In case of an illegal strike, the employer may deduct the full $5 attendance bonus. Employees are not entitled to pay when they go on strike. This rule applies to both legal and illegal strikes. Sometimes management and unions do agree for striking employees to be paid as part of the settlement of the dispute. Employers may not recruit new employees to replace striking employees. The Arbitration Council has found that transferring raw materials to another factory in order to get the work of striking employees done there can be equivalent to hiring new employees during a strike. If an employer does hire replacement employees, the employer has to pay the salaries of the striking employees for the duration of the strike. The Arbitration Council has found that the strikers are only entitled to pay under Art. 334 if they followed the legal procedures for calling a strike. Employers may also lockout their employees as part of a labor dispute. The right to lockout is subject to the same rules and restrictions as the right to strike. If an employer conducts an illegal lockout they must pay the employees' salaries during the lockout and penalties also apply.

V. Conclusion

Working conditions inside Cambodia’s clothing factories have not seriously deteriorated in the few months since the quota system was discontinued. The monitoring system set up by the ILO is to a large extent to thank for this, as are the announcements made by numerous buyers to the effect that showing better respect for workers is a key element in their decision to continue using Cambodia as a supplier for the time being. More and more employers are pressuring their workers to accept lower wages. The salaries in question, which so far remain slightly higher than those paid in neighboring countries like China or Vietnam, do not permit the workers to attain a decent standard of living.

Furthermore, beyond the textiles factory doors, the repression of workers and trade unionists stepped up in 2004 and early 2005. The authorities have violently put down strikes and demonstrations in a bid to satisfy employers anxious of being unable to deliver orders to their buyers on time. Although these buyers, which include some of the world’s best known clothing companies, are telling their Cambodian suppliers that showing respect for labor standards is an important factor in their purchasing decisions, at the same time they are putting them under pressure to lower their prices and shorten their delivery times.

Yet through repression of the rights of workers to form unions, demonstrate peacefully or go on strike, the Cambodian authorities are undermining the advantages on which the country’s economy depends. Cambodia’s better level of respect for workers’ rights inside factories provide its only significant edge over its rivals. If the Cambodian authorities really want to help employers in the clothing sector to survive in a quota-free trade environment, they would be better off trying to dismantle the major obstacles to business for which they are directly responsible, such as the very high level of corruption among civil servants and the excessive red tape to which imports and exports are subjected.

The pressure brought to bear by unfair competition from China is one of the key factors behind the rise in tension in Cambodia. The pitiless repression of any independent union activity in China enables businesses in China to offer far more advantageous prices and delivery times than their competitors. Such exploitation of Chinese workers is helping to reduce the prices paid to suppliers the whole world over, which is in turn putting pressure on those suppliers to scale back the rights of their workers in a bid to remain competitive. Consequently, China is, in effect, dragging down workers’ rights worldwide, a situation that the international trade union movement has strongly denounced both from solidarity with Chinese workers and owing to the knock-on effects it is having in countries such as Cambodia.

The report on world textiles trade published by the ICFTU in November 2004 emphasized that since the WTO was the international body responsible for world trade and had overseen the liberalization of world trade in textiles and clothing by ending the quota system, it now had a responsibility to consider the social consequences of such actions and to make recommendations for future policy too.

The WTO urgently needs to find an effective way of preventing the use of repression against workers as an illegitimate tool for boosting exports, as is occurring in China and in export processing zones in general. The government of China appears totally disinterested in the dramatic social consequences of its unfair practices for other developing countries, as was shown at a meeting of the WTO Council on Goods held on 1 October 2004, when several countries (Bangladesh, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, Fiji, Jamaica, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Nepal and Uganda) submitted a proposal for action to be taken by the WTO regarding the impact on their economies of the abolition of quotas. These countries asked the WTO to draw up a study aiming at identifying costs arising from the quota phase out, and to establish a work program that would enable them to discuss possible solutions.

However, no such action program could be adopted owing to opposition by several WTO members, in particular China. Following negotiations between members of the WTO, it would seem that the latter’s aid will be limited to two areas: (i) national technical assistance seminars on textiles and clothing, which will be held upon request by developing countries, and (ii) a study, undertaken by the WTO secretariat, on ways of improving developing countries’ competitiveness in the textiles and clothing sector. This study focuses on rules of origin, coherence program of the World Bank and IMF, and technical assistance.

This is a small step in the right direction, but is not enough. The WTO must conduct an in-depth analysis of the impact on employment and workers’ rights of the liberalization of trade in textiles and clothing. It must adopt recommendations on how to prevent future violations of workers’ rights in this sector and more generally. The 6th Ministerial Conference of the WTO (Hong Kong, 13-18 December 2005) should reiterate the commitment of WTO members to respect core labor standards, and authorize the WTO secretariat to begin a work program to look at the labor and social impact of trade liberalization, including its implications for core labor standards. In view of its competences and experience in this area, the ILO should evidently play a key role in this issue. This could also be implemented as a “policy coherence initiative" in line with the recommendations of the World Commission of the Social Dimensions of Globalization. As this report has shown, without such measures the prospects for those countries that seek to take a higher-standard path to development are bleak indeed.