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Cambodia Passes Controversial Draft Law on Trade Unions, Violence Follows

On Monday the Cambodian government passed a draft trade union law that would potentially violate certain labor conventions, and what started as peaceful protests against it, soon turned violent.

Cambodian law makers passed the controversial law, which sets new rules for establishing, operating and shutting down a union, despite pushback from union leaders who said the law doesn’t protect workers’ rights—namely that it threatens their freedom of association.

According to Cambodia Daily, a state security guard punched one unionist in the face, drawing blood, and threw a labor leader to the ground amid escalated shouting during protests outside the country’s National Assembly Monday.

The one thrown to her feet, prominent union leader Yaing Sophorn, said to Cambodia Daily following the incident, “We just held a peaceful protest and did not cause any traffic jam, so why have you committed violence toward us? This reflects the government of Cambodia not protecting our workers properly.”

Government officials said they would review video of the altercations, but early comments by City Hall spokesperson Long Dimanche seemed to imply that the union members were in the wrong.

“They were protesting without asking permission from authorities,” Cambodia Daily reported Dimanche as saying.

In its own review of the law, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said, “The draft law holds direct implications in the ability of people to form and join trade unions, as an inherent part of the right to freedom of association.”

OHCHR’s report served to remind Cambodia of its prior commitments under its own constitution, certain International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and other human rights previously agreed to.

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Put simply, Cambodian law already says everyone has the right to freedom of association and no restrictions can be placed on the exercise of that right other than what’s stipulated by law or necessary for maintaining national security and public health.

There are several provisions in the draft law, according to OHCHR, that could lead to trade unions being dissolved for subjective reasons or arbitrary limitations of a union members’ rights.

The ILO reportedly sent comments to the Cambodian government last month outlining points in the law that would violate the country’s commitments to protecting workers rights, Cambodia Daily reported. Among those points were provisions that would prevent individuals from running a union if they had any criminal convictions.

One labor group leader, Moeun Tola, said the ILO’s seal of approval is “crucial” to the country’s garment sector and that if the law violates Cambodia’s constitution and other human rights conventions, international brands will take notice.

“Because the brands, when they talk to consumers in the U.S. or E.U., they say Cambodia has good laws,” Tola told Cambodia Daily. “But when there is the law that violates the constitution, that will undermine the trust they have with consumers.”

OHCHR also called Cambodia out for its lack of transparency surrounding the draft law’s contents, and appealed to the country’s parliament to allow for an in-depth public consultation and debate of the draft law before any further action is taken.

Union leaders are planning meetings to discuss a path forward as the draft law moves onto the Senate and then to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, and both are expected to approve it.