Cambodia Seeks to Drop Pending Charges Against Unionists in About-Face on Labor

Cambodia's Ministry of Labor on Thursday asked all union leaders and labor activists who have court cases pending against them to report to the ministry so it can work with justice officials to have the charges dropped, in a move by Prime Minister Hun Sen's authoritarian regime to alleviate pressure from the international community over his human rights record.

The move comes a day after Hun Sen asked the two ministries to end pending cases to allow greater freedom for unions to work independently without fear of prosecution, especially in the crucial garment manufacturing sector.

A statement issued by the labor ministry said those who have cases pending against them should submit relevant documents before Dec. 10.

The roughly 40 cases still outstanding against unionists and activists entail charges mainly related to organizing and participating in labor demonstrations, including incitement, causing violence, destruction of property, and obstructing traffic.

It is believed that the cases have not gone to trial so that Hun Sen can use the charges to continue to stifle labor activists and organizers who pose a threat to his regime without drawing further condemnation from the international community.

Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, who has a case pending against her on criminal charges of incitement, told RFA's Khmer Service that she has already submitted paperwork to the labor ministry.

She said that government officials brought a case against her solely because her profession entails helping workers, and that she had not committed any crime.

'It won't help'

At least five prominent independent union leaders, including Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union; Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions; and Chea Mony, an advisor at the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, have open cases on charges of crimes related to labor issues.

Unionists accused of crimes under the penal code, such as incitement, are forbidden to engage in activities with workers or access factory premises.

Ath Thon told RFA that the lawsuit against him has affected his work.

Because of the complaints, we can't help workers resolve labor disputes, he said.

Rong Chhun told RFA that Hun Sen's move to have the cases dropped is not a genuine intention to give greater freedom to independent unions that engage in collective bargaining and advocate for rights and improved working conditions in the 600 factories that comprise Cambodia's heavily unionized garment and footwear sector.

He said the prime minister made the decision to stop the European Union from withdrawing Cambodia's preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) trade agreement that gives the developing country tariff-free access to the bloc.

Hun Sen is doing this just to stop Cambodia from plunging into further crisis, but it won't help, he said.

Cambodia's U.S. $7 billion apparel industry � the country's largest � employs around 700,000 people and accounts for four-fifths of exports.

Loss of EBA preferences

The EU informed Cambodia on Oct. 5 that it was ending its preferential trade status because of a worsening of the country's human rights record amid a crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media surrounding the general election on July 29.

EU officials said in October that it would take 18 months to complete the procedure if the EBA agreement is dropped, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party overwhelmingly won an election widely criticized as unfree and unfair following the Supreme Court's dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.

In early July, the EU launched a fact-finding mission to Cambodia to assess whether Hun Sen's government was adhering to its commitments in the Generalised Scheme of Preferences � an agreement that grants Cambodian exports tax-free entry into the European market under the EBA scheme.

The EU is the most important market for Cambodia's apparel industry, accounting for about 45 percent of the country's garment exports.

In March, industry organizations representing major European and American apparel brands sent an open letter to Hun Sen, stating their concern over several controversial labor-related laws and court cases against labor organizers.

They also asked for amendments to the country's 2016 Trade Union Law and called for an end to the harassment of labor activists.

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