More than 200 union leaders and activists from 17 unions and federations announced a social media campaign on August 14 to demand that the government hold factory owners accountable for paying benefits owed to employees.
Khun Tharo, program manager at labor rights group Central which coordinated the press conference, said federations, unions and workers are requesting that the government push employers to pay seniority indemnity, notice, and damage pay owed to workers.
The head of the Labor Ministry’s Inspection Department Ouk Chanthou sent a letter in late June allowing employers to delay notice and damage benefits to workers if they could not afford it due to economic strain. It followed a directive from the ministry at the beginning of June allowing employers to delay seniority indemnity payments until 2021.
“Please all brothers and sisters, join our campaign by writing on Facebook “Say NO to Workers’ Hunger,” Tharo said at the press conference.
“We will share together to our more than 12 million [Cambodian] people who use Facebook and request the government reconsider its decision and create policies that guarantee workers health and living standards, as about 80,000 people” have been affected by the policy change, he continued.
About 200 activists and union members joined the event, some carrying posters saying “Everyone is scared of Covid, I’m scared of having no food,” “Give me my seniority indemnity,” and “Say NO to Workers’ Hunger.”
Tharo added that according to recent data, about 450 factories are currently suspended and 30 have permanently closed this year, affecting thousands of workers.
After the press conference, the unions delivered a petition to the Labor Ministry to ask that it cancel its June decision allowing the owners of near-bankrupt factories to delay seniority indemnity payments until 2021 and to skip notice and damage payments.
Nin Vannak, a deputy secretary-general of the Committee for the Resolution of Strikes at the Labor Ministry could not be reached for comment.
Mann Seng Hak, vice president of the Free Trade Union said that as garment workers have been struggling to find work, the ministry has issued two statements that instead support employers.
“So please, Labor Ministry, review these problems again,” Seng Hak said. “I think that [Labor Ministry Inspection Department Director] Ouk Chanthou’s letter seems opposed to the purpose of the government.”
Kong Atith, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said that besides appealing to the ministry, unions are also negotiating with nearly 30 industry buyers asking that they provide $76 of additional financial support. Currently, unemployed garment workers receive a total of $70 per month in assistance funding from the government and their former employer.
Atith said the Labor Ministry and Chanthou are taking actions opposed to the Labor Law and are giving factory owners excuses not to pay workers in the event that they close.
“We will continue our campaign in the future and we need to unite with each other for workers’ benefits,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said garment industry employees will face even more hardship now that the European Commission’s decision to partially suspend Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” tariff-free status to the European Union has taken effect.
He said that according to the letter from Chanthou, companies that shut down their factories can inform workers immediately and do not need to supply workers with notice payment.
“I think that the ministry [of Labor] needs to consider canceling that letter and to implement the Labor Law normally,” Thorn said. “If we do not, employers will take this opportunity to use it as a reason to terminate workers” without having to cover the cost of regular benefits, Thorn said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said it was the unions’ right to request that the Labor Ministry change its approach.
“However, as of now, employers are implementing the rules based on the Labor Ministry’s decision,” he said, before declining to comment further.
An August 14 statement from the Labor Ministry provided by ministry spokesman Heng Sour clarifies Chanthou’s June letter detailing the circumstances in which an employer may skip payments for notice of cancellation of contract or damages.
“The payment instead of notice shall not be implemented if the factory or enterprise is closed or the owner has left because this case is addressed under different rules” it says.
Some points of the statement refer to the global economic slowdown caused by Covid-19, and say that employers are not required to provide workers with “damage pay” which is guaranteed under Article 91 of the Labor Law in cases where one party has canceled the contract without “valid reasons.”
“In case the global demand is decreased or the factory is going bankrupt which makes the factory or enterprise to completely or partially end its production lines, there will be not enough elements or conditions to receive the damage payments,” it says.
More than 20 unions and associations had previously submitted petitions in June and July to the Labor Ministry and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet asking that they intervene to urge employers to provide annual seniority indemnity payments owed to workers.