Cambodia: Garment Factories Thwarting Unions

The Cambodian government should ensure that garment factories stop intimidating and threatening workers seeking to form unions and assert their labor rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should cease banning public demonstrations and using security forces to disperse worker protests, and instead enforce the country’s labor laws.
Cambodian garment factories supplying international brands regularly use threats, firing, and non-renewal of temporary employment contracts to interfere with workers’ rights to establish and participate in independent unions, Human Rights Watch said. On January 17, 2014, international brands wrote a public letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen supporting workers’ rights to unionize, but they should do more to ensure their suppliers comply with the law and cease anti-union practices.
“The Cambodian government should ensure that garment factories stop deploying union-busting strategies and respect workers’ rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Global apparel brands need to make sure their suppliers allow workers to form independent unions without interference, and that union representatives can be in factories without threats and retaliation.”
In late 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed nearly 200 Cambodian garment factory workers and union representatives from 55 factories. They detailed problems with anti-union discrimination, management harassment, unlawful employment practices, and poor working conditions. Human Rights Watch documented anti-union practices in at least 35 of the 55 factories between 2012 and 2013. While many workers have joined unions, others said they wanted to set up or join independent unions but feared they would lose their jobs if they did so. Anti-union actions infringe on the right to freedom of association under national and international law and have contributed to worker discontent and labor strikes.
“[Factory managers] told us to put our thumbprints on a letter that said we wouldn’t form a union,” one worker told Human Rights Watch, describing a 2013 meeting. “They told us that if we formed a union we would be dismissed.”
In early January 2014, Cambodian security forces, including regular army units and gendarmes, used excessive and disproportionate force to break up demonstrations in Phnom Penh seeking higher minimum wages for garment workers. Security forces fired on and beat demonstrators, killing at least five people and injuring dozens of others, at least 39 of whom were hospitalized. The security forces also arrested 23 activists and workers, all of whom have so far been denied bail and face trial in government-controlled courts.
With broader protests by the political opposition in Phnom Penh, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has since suspended all public assembly in violation of international law. The authorities are enforcing this prohibition by temporarily detaining those who gather in public places, and by deploying security forces, civilian “public order” auxiliaries, and government-backed vigilantes to deter and disperse protests. On January 26, such forces violently broke up an attempted gathering of trade unionists and others at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, which resulted in injuries to protesters, a few security personnel, and alleged government intelligence agents.
According to news reports, owners of more than 100 factories intend to sue unions they blame for the protests. To date more than 100 labor union representatives and workers have been fired for participating in the demonstrations.
In the January 17 letter to Hun Sen, many international brands expressed “grave concern” at the use of deadly force against protesting workers, called on the government to launch a prompt and thorough investigation, and made recommendations to address “the root cause of current and past conflicts” in the industry.
“Global apparel brands are uniquely placed to make sure Cambodia’s garment factories promote fair treatment of workers and protect their freedom to unionize,” Adams said. “For the integrity of their brand as well as workers’ rights, they should publicly name contractors and institute an inspection regime to identify subcontractors, where some of the worst abuses occur.”