Cambodia is edging ever closer to adopting a new law on trade unions, despite heavy criticism from workers, civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and relevant stakeholders.
The draft Trade Union Law (“TUL”) will be sent to the National Assembly for debate next Monday, on 04 April 2016. In a last-ditch attempt to dissuade the National Assembly from adopting this draconian law, independent unions have announced their intention to stage a large-scale protest outside the National Assembly on the day of the debate.
If passed in its current form, the draft TUL, which was approved by the cabinet on 13 November 2015, will impose arbitrary restrictions on the formation and operation of unions and, in so doing, will violate the rights of workers to freely join organizations of their own choosing (freedom of association) and to collectively bargain with their employers and local authorities. These rights are enshrined within international human rights law, which Cambodia is constitutionally obliged to adhere to.
As with the recent controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (“LANGO”), the draft TUL contains articles that render it “open to arbitrary or political-motivated interpretations by the courts”, insofar as it prohibits, in purposefully ambiguous terms, unions from acting “contrary to public order” and from causing “trouble with the only objective of being of service to a political tendency”.
Despite the existence of comprehensive domestic and international legal frameworks that promote and protect human rights in Cambodia, in reality, the government, as evidenced by the recent introduction of laws such as the LANGO and the Telecommunications Law, does not shy away from reneging on its human rights obligations.
Trade unions have welcomed some changes in the most recent draft; most notably the lowering of the minimum number of workers required to start a union from 20 to 10 and the relaxing of the eligibility requirements for union leadership and criteria for obtaining “most representative status”. However, the draft TUL still fails to meet international labor law standards and, by calling for the mandatory registration of unions and enforcing limitations on union activities, infringes upon the ability of Cambodians to exercise their fundamental freedoms of association, expression and assembly. The draft TUL effectively criminalizes protests and demonstration by making it unlawful to “bring about a traffic jam”, demonstrating just how far the government is willing to go to crackdown on any form of political dissent.
The provisions for a mandatory registration scheme and limitations upon the activities of unions provided for within the draft TUL irrevocably undermine Cambodia’s legal commitments under international human rights law. Such provisions violate the rights to freedom of assembly and expression; given that these are fundamental rights, Cambodians should not need to seek permission from the government before exercising them.
As Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has affirmed, “Individuals involved in unregistered associations should indeed be free to carry out any activities, including the right to hold and participate in peaceful assemblies”.
Article 29 of the draft TUL provides cause for further concern, insofar as it allows for the dissolution of a trade union in the event of ‘misconduct’ of an individual leader. ‘Misconduct’ does not even necessarily entail criminal conduct, meaning the government will be able to dissolve a union simply if it does not like the actions of an individual leader. This is particularly worrying in the light of recent events in which trumped-up charges have been brought against union leaders for alleged criminal activity during protests and demonstrations.
The events of 08 February 2016 represent one especially alarming example of governmental suppression of trade union activity. Four independent labor organization leaders were charged with intentional violence, obstructing public officials and blocking traffic in connection to an on-going protest against Capitol Tour’s unlawful dismissal of 45 bus drivers. None of the leaders were even present at the protest. These charges are indicative of a systematic governmental campaign to restrict freedoms of assembly, expression and association in Cambodia. To make matters worse, Article 29 does not provide for an appeal process for unions and employer associations that have either been dissolved or had their registration applications denied.
In reaction to the poor reception the previous draft TUL received amongst CSOs, labor organizations and human rights commentators, the government delayed the law’s proposal to the National Assembly and announced on 10 December 2015 the creation of a bipartisan committee to examine the law. Yang Sophoan, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, was one of many union leaders to voice concerns over the proposed TUL. She said the law “doesn’t protect the interests of workers or unions” and considered the requirement for unions to provide financial reporting particularly worrying. The committee concluded its proceedings on 19 January 2016, having made very few amendments to the draft.
As it stands, the draft TUL fails to uphold the rights of workers as codified in a number of human rights treaties and calls from unions to bring the law closer to international labor law standards appear unlikely to be answered. If passed, it will have a devastating effect on the ability of Cambodians to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression and will effectively ban protests, a mainstay of any democratic society.
Euan Black, CCHR International Intern
 Phnom Penh Post, ‘Assembly passes LANGO’ (14 July 2015) Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/assembly-passes-lango
 Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights
 Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights>
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, para. 56, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/20/27 (21 May 2012)
 CCHR, ‘Escalation of Violent Repression of Trade Union Activities’ (Factsheet) (March 2016) Available at: http://cchrcambodia.org/admin/media/factsheet/factsheet/english/2016_03_09_CCHR_Fact_Sheet_Escalation_of_Violence_Against_Trade_Unions_ENG.pdf
 Voice of America, ‘Labor Leaders Fear Union Law Will Pass Without Meaningful Changes’ (06 January 2016) Available at: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/labor-leaders-fear-union-law-will-pass-without-meaningful-changes/3133580.html