PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodian lawmakers have approved a proposed law setting rules for creating and running trade unions, which rights groups decried Tuesday as designed to curb workers’ rights and limit their ability to stage strikes.
The law has been a fiercely contested issue for years by factory workers, who have protested repeatedly for higher pay, and by rights groups who say the garment industry is rife with abuse and this law does little to help workers.
Cambodia’s largest industry employs about 700,000 people working in more than 700 clothing and shoe factories, including those that supply major Western brands such as Gap, H&M, Adidas and Nike. In 2015, the Southeast Asian country shipped about $7 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.
The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen says the law is intended to better regulate unions.
It cleared the lower house of parliament Monday evening with all 67 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party supporting it and 31 opposition lawmakers voting against it. Approval from the senate is considered a formality.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers in the Kingdom of Cambodia, was one of many labour activists who said the new law does not reflect the interests of workers. He said it strictly limits workers’ ability to strike or protest.
According to the new law, workers who have been abused or mistreated at their factories and want to stage a protest must ask permission from their factory owners or can be arrested for blocking the factory’s production, he said.
The law also sets numerous conditions that obstruct workers from freely forming unions, he said.
“This law is total nonsense. It does not serve the benefit of workers or the Cambodian people,” Cheay Mony said. “Once the law is officially implemented, workers will not be able to freely protest to demand their rights or benefits.”
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the law “marks a further downward slide for labour rights in Cambodia.”
The proposed law has been in the drafting stage for eight years and has undergone revisions but activists say that none of their demands were accounted for in the final version.
Factory workers in Cambodia are generally better organized and more militant than in other low-cost manufacturing countries. Aggressive labour strikes around the capital, Phnom Penh, in 2014 were suppressed with deadly force. Protests continued into 2015 as labour unions sought to hike the minimum wage to $160 a month up from the prior level of $128. Most agreed to accent an increase to $140.