The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice without prior authorization, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively. While unions may affiliate freely, the law does not explicitly address their right to affiliate internationally.
The law requires trade unions to file their charters and lists of their officials with the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MOLVT). The Bureau of Labor Relations is responsible for facilitating the process of union registration and certification of “most representative status” for unions, in cases where there are multiple unions in an enterprise.
Civil servants, including teachers, judges, and military personnel, as well as household workers, do not have the right to form or join a trade union. The International Labor Organization (ILO) requested the government ensure public employees have the legal right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Personnel in the air and maritime transportation industries are free to form unions but are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from the limitations on work hours prescribed by the labor law.
The law stipulates workers can strike only after several requirements have been met, including: the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as negotiation, mediation, or arbitration), a secret-ballot vote of the union membership, and seven-day’s advance notice to the employer and the MOLVT. There is no law prohibiting strikes by civil servants, workers in public sectors, or workers in essential services. The law provides for the protection of strikers from reprisal. The law also provides union leaders with protection from dismissal.
Regulations on collective bargaining require unions to demonstrate that they represent workers for the purpose of bargaining collectively. The regulations grant collective bargaining rights to the union within an enterprise that has most representative status and require employers to negotiate if such a union proposes a collective bargaining agreement. These regulations also bind both parties to agree to an orderly bargaining process, make considered and reasonable offers and counteroffers, and require the employer provide the union with facilities to conduct union activities and all information requested by the union that is relevant to the bargaining process. The law, however, allows third parties to raise objections to granting a union most-representative status, which could be grounds for government refusal. The ILO noted that allowing third party objections runs counter to internationally agreed labor rights related to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Unresolved labor disputes may be brought to the Arbitration Council, an independent state body that interprets labor regulations in collective disputes, such as when multiple employees are dismissed. The parties may choose whether to consider the council’s decisions as binding. If neither party objects to the arbitral award within eight days of its issuance, it automatically becomes binding. Individual disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system is neither impartial nor transparent (see section 1.e.). There is no specialized labor court.
Workers reportedly experienced obstacles in exercising their right to associate freely, as some employers reportedly refused to sign the notification letters recognizing a union officially. In addition, workers in the garment sector were hired as subcontractors, making unionization difficult. Enforcement of the right of association and freedom from antiunion discrimination was inconsistent. Acts of antiunion discrimination, intimidation, and retaliation by employers almost always went unpunished. The government’s willingness to address violations of worker rights was sometimes limited by close relationships among government officials, employers, and union leaders. These relationships deterred union leaders from reporting cases of discrimination and hampered the independent operation of unions. Union leaders affiliated with the government did not act independently and sometimes did not report cases of union discrimination to the government. The government also did not devote sufficient resources to enforcement, particularly the provision of training and resources to ensure a functioning labor inspectorate. During the first six months of the year, at least five independent unions reported they could not register newly established union representatives at approximately 30 factories because the MOLVT required additional information, such as criminal records of proposed union representatives. The MOLVT denied allegations of refusing to register new unions and said its procedures conformed to the law.
The government’s enforcement of collective bargaining rights was inconsistent. The MOLVT formally warned 178 companies of legal violations of the labor law as of June. Although the MOLVT often decided in favor of employees, it rarely used its legal authority to penalize employers who defied its orders. During the first six months of the year, the MOLVT reported that it received 65 cases of non-strike-related disputes, and its Department of Labor Disputes reportedly resolved 14 of these cases successfully. During this same period, there were 67 strike-related complaints filed with the MOLVT, of which 21 cases were resolved successfully. The Department of Labor Disputes sent the 97 unresolved cases to the Arbitration Council. Some unions urged the government to expand the role of the Arbitration Council to include individual and collective-interest disputes and to make its decisions binding. From January to June, the Arbitration Council received 174 cases, a 24 percent increase from the same period last year. The council reported that of the 174 cases, the council resolved 48 by ordering an arbitration award, 65 were settled among the parties before an award was ordered, 20 cases were closed due to lack of participation or cooperation by the parties, and the remaining cases were ongoing.
The majority of unions were affiliated with the ruling party, some were affiliated with the opposition party, and some were independent unions.
Organization among public-sector workers continued to face significant obstacles. The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association is registered with the Ministry of Interior as an “association” due to prohibitions on public-sector unions, and the government denied its requests for permission to march and protest, although the union reported no direct government interference in day-to-day activities. Some members feared their affiliation with the teachers association could hamper career advancement. Another public-sector association, the Cambodian Independent Civil Servants Association, alleged that fear of harassment, discrimination, or demotion deterred individuals from joining.
In December 2013, thousands of garment workers walked off their jobs to protest the government’s plan to increase their monthly minimum wage to 385,000 riel ($95), an amount significantly less than unions’ demands for 650,000 riel ($160) per month. Over the next several days, the protests increased in size and scope. On January 2, security forces clashed violently with more than 500 protesters reportedly throwing rocks in front of the Yakjin Garment Factory in Phnom Penh. On January 3, military police clashed with a different group of protesters outside the Canadia Garment Factory near Phnom Penh. Protesters reportedly burned tires and threw rocks at security forces after authorities attempted to break up the protest. Police responded by firing tear gas and eventually live ammunition, resulting in the deaths of four persons and injuries to more than 35 others (see section 1.a.).
Police arrested and detained 23 individuals at the sites of the January 2 and 3 protests. The detainees were released from prison in May after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court tried and convicted them for inciting violence but suspended their sentences. Observers heavily criticized the detention of these individuals and the conduct of the court proceedings against them, saying those detained were exercising their right to protest and were detained without due process.
The government imposed a ban on all public assemblies or rallies, which it enforced on an ad hoc basis, after the January 2-3 violence. The government allowed most strikes held at factories, despite the fact that strikers rarely provided the legally required advanced notice. The government did deny worker requests to hold protest marches outside factory areas. Additionally, police intervened when garment workers blocked major thoroughfares in Phnom Penh.
In June 2013 the Svay Rieng Provincial Court convicted and sentenced in absentia former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith to 18 months in jail for shooting into a group of approximately 5,000 protesting garment workers and wounding three women. In October 2013 the Appeals Court upheld the verdict, but as of October, Chhouk Bandith remained a fugitive.
There were credible reports of antiunion harassment by employers, including the dismissal of union leaders in garment factories and other enterprises. In some factories the management appeared to have established or supported promanagement unions or compromised union leaders by jeopardizing their employment. Following violent labor protests in November 2013, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) filed complaints in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against six independent union federations, alleging that the federations incited workers to violent protests, which resulted in damage to factory property and production. As of June, five independent unions reported that 39 union representatives in 11 factories were dismissed due to their union affiliation.
Despite legal provisions protecting strikers from reprisals, there were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. While most strikes were illegal, participating in an illegal strike was not by itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers pressured strikers to accept compensation and leave their employment.
Remedies exist for such dismissals, although no remedies were viewed as effective. The MOLVT may issue reinstatement orders, but these often provoked management efforts to pressure workers into resigning in exchange for a settlement. At times management failed to obey a court order for reinstatement.
In 2012 the GMAC and eight union federations signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that many observers believed would lead to more collective bargaining and fewer strike actions. The MOU committed factories and workers to accept the rulings of the Arbitration Council. The signatories to the MOU convened quarterly meetings in February and July to discuss implementation of the MOU and enforcement of Arbitration Council rulings.