Labor activists gathered outside Cambodia's National Assembly Monday to protest against a controversial new Trade Union Law (D. de Carteret / VOA)
Labor activists gathered outside Cambodia's National Assembly Monday to protest against a controversial new Trade Union Law (D. de Carteret / VOA)

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia’s opposition party, along with labor activists, have slammed a contentious trade union law passed hurriedly through parliament late Monday, saying that it falls far short of international labor standards.

The law has been widely criticized by unions and rights groups who say it makes it difficult for unions to form and for workers to strike.  Critics say it places onerous financial reporting requirements on unions and contains clauses that discriminate against union leaders.

Legislators from the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) voted unanimously to adopt the law at the National Assembly, while the body’s 55 opposition lawmakers decided not to vote on it as they believe it was rushed through parliament with little debate.

“The [government’s] intention is quite clear: it is not to protect workers under the law, it is simply to bring trade unions under control,” opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said Tuesday.

He said many of the recommendations made by unions, labor rights groups and the opposition to ensure it was up to international norms were ignored.

Government defends the new labor law

But government spokesperson Phay Siphan has defended the law, saying  “We reviewed the law according to Cambodian standards. Cambodia is not the U.S. or the UK.”

The spokesman added there was adequate time for opponents to debate the law before Monday’s vote. 

“They had the chance to raise their hand,” he said of the opposition’s decision to abstain from the vote. 

The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Cambodia last week released a report that detailed how  many of the clauses in the new law are in breach of international labor conventions. 

The U.N.’s International Labor Organization had previously written to the Cambodian Labor Ministry with a list of recommendations for bringing the law into compliance with international standards. 

The ILO released a statement late Monday calling on the government to work with unions and employers to ensure the new law was implemented in a “fair and impartial manner.”

Ath Thun, center, president of the Coalition of Ca
Ath Thun, center, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, delivers a speech during a protest rally at a blocked street near National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, April 4, 2016.

Violent protest

Earlier on Monday, a bloody scuffle broke out when dozens of unionists and labor activists gathered near the assembly and were violently dispersed by local security forces, with one union leader thrown to the ground and another punched in the face. 

Moeun Tola, executive director for the rights group Central, who was there to observe the protest, described the crackdown as a “mafia-style” response from the government. 

As for the law, Tola called it “unconstitutional” as it “makes it clear that workers cannot strike.”

Rights group weighs in

Human Rights Watch released a statement on Tuesday condemning both the violence and the new law.

“The National Assembly vote to adopt a trade union law contrary to international standards marks a further downward slide for labor rights in Cambodia,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

Labor rights have long been a contentious issue in Cambodia, where union strikes seeking higher wages have occasionally been met with a violent response from police.