Great Duke Workers Awarded Compensation as Unions Demand Law Reforms

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Former employees of the closed-down Great Duke Hotel raise banners demanding severance pay and benefits on January 20, 2020 in Phnom Penh. (Panha Chorpoan/VOD)

Former staff of the closed Great Duke hotel in Phnom Penh have been awarded compensation by arbiters, as unions again demanded changes to the Trade Union Law, which they say restricts workers’ rights and the ability to organize.

Touch Kosal, president of the Cambodia Tourism Workers Union Federation (CTWUF), which represents former Great Duke employees, said Friday that his union had been awarded three of its four demands by the Arbitration Council, including compensation for seniority benefits, late notice of termination and unused vacation time.

However, Kosal, who also heads the Tourism Workers Union of the Great Duke Phnom Penh, said the union would appeal to Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng over the Council’s decision, announced Thursday, because workers were not awarded compensation for damages.

“We think it is unjust for workers since the hotel was closed and they did not give damages,” Kosal said.

A union lawyer would file the appeal on Monday, when members would also meet to decide whether they would file a court complaint if their appeal is unsuccessful, Kosal said.

The Great Duke, formerly the five-star InterContinental Phnom Penh hotel, announced its closure on December 31 after more than two decades in business. The employer has claimed bankruptcy as the reason it could not compensate 138 former employees who have demanded unpaid benefits.

Men Nimmith, executive director of the Arbitration Council Foundation, and lawyers for the Great Duke could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Oum Vanna, who worked as a front-office supervisor at the hotel for about 20 years, said if workers continued to demand additional compensation, they might get it, but the dispute would be prolonged and leave workers waiting to be paid.

“If we still protest, we might get more, but it can take more time. Some can wait and some cannot wait,” Vanna said.

Lim Sophal, a driver for the Great Duke’s general manager for more than two decades, added that the union’s ongoing protests still hadn’t ensured respect for the Labor Law.

“We try to shout and cry, but the result is still not very good,” he said.

Challenges to Union Organizing

In a joint letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen in December, 36 Cambodian and international rights groups and unions called for “significant revision” of the Trade Union Law, saying that the latest changes, while introducing some improvements, limited workers’ freedom of association and rights to organize and collectively bargain.

On Thursday, representatives of about 20 labor unions and associations, including Kosal’s CTWUF, petitioned Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, calling for a discussion of amendments to the union law with unionists, civil society members and other stakeholders.

According to the petition, the Labor Ministry has made amendments to 10 articles of the law, but unions said the changes were only slight and further revisions were needed to lessen restrictions on union activities.

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour did not reply to requests for comment, but an administrative official at the ministry said he accepted the petition and would pass it to his superiors.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union Movement of Workers, discusses a petition for amendments to the Trade Union Law submitted to the Labor Ministry on February 20, 2020. (Hy Chhay/VOD)
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union Movement of Workers, discusses a petition for amendments to the Trade Union Law submitted to the Labor Ministry on February 20, 2020. (Hy Chhay/VOD)

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union Movement of Workers (CUMW), who joined other unionists at the Labor Ministry on Thursday to submit the petition, told reporters that although the government had previously made some changes to the union law, he still saw it as restrictive and burdensome.

Sina said that unions had asked the ministry many times to amend the law, but some requested changes were never made. The union registration process was the most restrictive part of the law, according to Sina.

He said the required number of members to form a union under the current law made it difficult for workers in informal sectors, including construction, the service industry and domestic labor, to organize and form unions.

“We see that this law remains an obstacle in the functioning of organizations and unions that play a vital role in representing members as well as workers in resolving disputes,” Sina said. 

Sou Chhlonh, vice-president of Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), said construction workers in particular were struggling to organize under the law because it required local unions to have at least 10 members per site.

“The construction sector is more difficult than other sectors because they are not at one place like the garment sector,” Chhlonh said. “So their intention to create a union faces serious difficulty.”

The law’s reporting requirements on activities and finances were an additional burden on workers, he said.

EU Calls for ‘New Round of Negotiations’ on Union Law

The unions’ call follows last week’s announcement by the European Commission to suspend Cambodia’s duty-free access to the European bloc for select exports over “serious and systematic” human rights violations, including infringements of political and labor rights.

While the Commission recognized positive steps taken by Cambodia in the areas of labor and land rights, it expressed serious concerns over unresolved civil and criminal cases against trade union leaders, and investigations of the murders of unionists.

The E.U. also listed the Trade Union Law among nine Cambodian laws, amendments and other regulations that it said contravened the nation’s obligations under the international political rights convention.

Regardless of progress in the settlement of numerous labor dispute cases concerning unionists, “all the remaining open cases should be resolved without delay,” the Commission said in its published delegated regulation.

The Commission also said a “new round of negotiations” should begin soon to continue revising the union law.

“The revision should prioritise the opening of the scope of the [Trade Union Law] to all workers and civil servants, the additional provisions to facilitate the registration of trade unions and employer associations, and the protection against all acts of anti-union discrimination with the objective of ensuring full compliance” of the law with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, the Commission said.

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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