[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.”
Factory Interference With Independent Union Activities
Cambodian garment factory owners and managers have persistently sought to block the creation and work of independent unions. Garment workers and union representatives from 35 factories told Human Rights Watch that between 2012 and 2013 management took retaliatory or other actions against workers who tried to form or join independent unions. Factories also established pro-management “unions” that did little to address workers’ grievances, and then pressured workers to join them, rather than independent unions.
Factories often fired workers soon after they organized or joined an independent union on the pretext of being an “unproductive worker.” For example, in October 2013, five garment workers who were working to set up an independent union at one factory were forced out of their jobs – just days after they notified the factory about forthcoming union elections. A union federation official told Human Rights Watch:
The five union activists were called for a meeting… and asked to affix their thumbprints on a letter saying they had resigned. They refused to do that. They were physically pushed out of there. When they asked what they had done wrong, they were told not to ask questions and not to come to the factory.
Workers told Human Rights Watch that garment factories use other tactics to interfere with their ability to join or participate in independent unions, including forcing them to sign letters promising that they will not join unions and favoring workers who are not part of independent unions for highly coveted overtime work. Union representatives also said that factories have taken advantage of bureaucratic procedures for the registration of unions. Some factories have refused to receive notifications for union formation, causing delays. Factory managers have fired union leaders or candidates days after they received notifications about union elections, or implemented punitive transfers of union representatives to other branch factories or other divisions within the same factory.
Fixed-Duration Contracts Used to Intimidate Workers
Many workers told Human Rights Watch that factory managers threatened to not renew their employment contracts if they were involved with independent unions. Ten workers from one factory, for example, reported that they were warned against participating in union activities at the time they signed their contracts. They explained that when a colleague from the stock division joined an independent union operating in the factory, his fixed-duration contract was not renewed.
Cambodian law allows factories to employ workers on fixed-duration contracts – typically for two to six months – that can be renewed for up to two years. After that, the law requires workers to be classified as “permanent employees,” with greater protections and benefits. But some factories repeatedly renew fixed-duration contracts beyond the two-year limit, leaving workers to constantly fear non-renewal of their contracts if they are perceived to act against their employer’s wishes.
Representatives from independent union federations and other labor rights activists working with garment workers told Human Rights Watch that fixed-duration contracts are a major obstacle to unionizing. These include union representatives from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia (NIFTUC), and the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) and other labor rights activists from the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) and Workers Information Centre (WIC). The Worker Rights Consortium, an international labor rights organization, estimates that 72 percent of 127 Cambodian factories it surveyed in 2013 were violating the fixed-duration contract law; 119 of those factories were members of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), a trade group.
Unionization Barriers in Subcontracting Factories
Large factories with independent unions often subcontract work to smaller factories where anti-union intimidation is even more common, according to union representatives.
Workers from small subcontracting factories in Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kampong Cham, and Prey Veng provinces told Human Rights Watch that their factories either did not have unions or erected significant barriers to unionizing. Often these smaller factories did not even have signs posted or give workers identification cards with the name of the factory and would shut down on short notice, leaving workers unemployed. Union representatives said such practices made it especially difficult to organize a union.
Lack of Transparency in the Supply Chain
Unearthing information about subcontracting relationships in supply chains is critical if international brands are to press effectively for improved conditions for Cambodian workers and an end to anti-union practices. Several international brands – such as Adidas, H&M, Levi’s, Nike, and Puma – have taken steps to publicly disclose the names of their direct suppliers. Such disclosures help labor rights advocates and unions better monitor compliance with brands’ policies and labor laws. Unfortunately, suppliers themselves seldom disclose the subcontracting arrangements they have with smaller factories, thwarting closer scrutiny of respect for workers’ rights throughout the supply chain.
International and Cambodian Law
Cambodia has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Labour Organization Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, all of which protect the rights of workers to form or join a union of their own choosing.
Cambodia’s constitution guarantees the right to form trade unions, freedom of association, and the right to strike and hold nonviolent demonstrations.
The Labor Law of 1997 protects freedom of association and prohibits anti-union discrimination by employers, but the government fails to effectively enforce the law. Article 271 of the Labor Law guarantees the freedom of workers to form a union of their choice without being discriminated on the basis of sex, age, or nationality. Factories’ anti-union methods violate article 279, which states that “employers are forbidden to take into consideration union affiliation or participation in union activities when making decisions concerning recruitment, management, and assignment of work, promotion, remuneration, and granting of benefits, disciplinary measures, and dismissal.” The creation of factory-controlled unions violates article 280, which forbids employer interference with trade unions to ensure they are dominated or controlled by the employer.
Human Rights Watch recommendations
To the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia:
Direct members to end all forms of anti-union discrimination, halt threats against independent unions and members, and end the misuse of bureaucratic union registration procedures.
Comply with Cambodian Labor Law on fixed-term employment contracts; issue contracts for “permanent employment” to workers employed for more than two years.
To international apparel brands:
Disclose all supplier and subcontracting factories and update regularly.
Press suppliers to cease anti-union actions and issue “permanent employment” contracts to workers employed for more than two years.
Urge the Cambodian government to revoke its ban on protests and to release and drop charges against all individuals arrested for protesting for their labor rights.
To the Cambodian government:
Immediately revoke the ban on protests.
Release all individuals arrested for protesting for better wages or other basic rights.
Effectively enforce the Labor Law of 1997, especially workers’ rights to form unions and protections from anti-union actions.
Interviews and Testimonies
Factories and union federation names are not identified here for the workers’ protection.
A garment worker said managers at his factory fired him soon after they were notified that he was elected to a new union he had helped to establish. He said:
The election took place in October 2013 and I was elected president. We sent a notification letter to the factory. They did not accept the notification. Instead the Chinese owner couple called me for a meeting and asked me whether I wanted to set up a union. I got scared and said I didn’t. They let me return to work that day. They called me again for a meeting the next day and another man was in the room. He introduced himself as an officer from the Ministry of Interior. He asked me how much money I wanted to leave the factory. I didn’t accept the money. The next day, the factory manager called me, the vice president [of the union] and the secretary [of the union] and told us our performance was not good and we were being dismissed. They instructed the security guards not to let us in from the next day.
A worker on a four-month, fixed-duration contract told Human Rights Watch that managers at her factory fired the leaders of an independent union in mid-2013, and established a pro-management “union.” She said:
Before this we used to have another union – the factory got rid of all the previous union leaders and established a new one. All this happened a few months after I joined this year . …The union leaders lost their jobs. First, the factory did not let one union leader work and workers went on strike. They took back that worker but after some time all the union leaders were fired.
Two workers on fixed-term contracts said their factory had fired workers who tried to set up a union in 2012. “Since then, group leaders and administrative staff regularly warn us that our contracts will not be renewed if we set up a union,” said one of the workers. They said the factory allowed only a pro-management union.
Two workers reported that managers allowed only workers who were not members of an independent union to earn extra money by performing overtime work.
Two workers who were helping set up an independent union reported that in 2013 factory management had forced many male workers to sign a letter promising not to form a union. One said:
The administrative staff called many male workers and asked us to put our thumbprints on a letter that said we wouldn’t form a union. They told us that if we formed a union we would be dismissed. The management had asked the group leaders to send those men [to the office to sign the letter] who were active within the factory – the ones who are vocal and challenge the management.
Problems in Subcontracting Factories
A worker who was employed in 2013 by a small factory that subcontracts with larger factories said:
I went to work in the sewing division of the small factory. We produced for other factories – I don’t know which ones but the manager told us we send the products to other factories. They hired us on a daily-wage basis. The factory has no union. The working conditions are bad there. No worker can set up a union there. Workers are not even allowed to speak to each other… in that factory.
A worker from a subcontracting factory in Kandal province told Human Rights Watch that he was routinely verbally threatened and warned against forming a union. Other workers from subcontracting factories in Kandal province said that their factories did not have unions, and workers were too afraid to start unions.