Interview: Tola Moeun, head of the Labour Programs at the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC)
Tola Moeun is Cambodia’s public enemy number one – at least in the eyes of many garment manufacturers and politicians. For years now, this legal expert has been supporting workers’ organizations in defending their right to a living wage and decent working conditions. His weapons: the law and the media.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: What does CLEC do to support garment workers in Cambodia?
A: We provide technical and legal support on issues related to labor law and trade union law. We mostly work with local union leaders, NGOs and students, but our trainings are open to all, including human resources managers and civil servants.
We also devote a large part of our work to public awareness on labor issues. For instance, we have set up a weekly radio program focusing on workers problems in garment factories: overtime, maternity leave, contracts, bonuses, union busting, etc. Every Wednesday, workers can call us to express their grievances and ask questions. We compile their questions and our legal experts provide a legal answer on the following week. Every month, we summarize the main issues raised by workers and call officials, MPs or employers to get their reaction live on the radio. Of course, many of them don’t like that. This program is now available in 11 provinces and potentially reaches 4 to 5 million people. It is crucial to reach marginalized workers and analyze the trends in labor law violations.
Q: You are also very active in publishing analyses and providing opinions in newspapers…
A: We are legal experts. Our role is to look at the labor law and its implementation in Cambodia. Based on our research and on workers’ grievances, we submit op-eds and articles to newspapers to inform policy-makers on various problems and solutions. Is the labor law clear enough on short-term contracts? Are there contradictions between the law and the ILO guidelines? What is the legal responsibility of authorities regarding union busting practices? In our publications and media activities, we never express our personal opinion. We only focus on a legal perspective. That’s probably why we are considered “troublemakers” in some influential circles…
Q: What are the main issues raised by workers?
A: The most common problem is probably the right to sick leave. Workers have to provide a certificate to be on sick leave. But given their wage, going to the doctor is too expensive. That’s why they go to work even when they’re seriously sick and cannot enjoy one of the most basic labor rights. Maternity leave is also an important issue. Most garment workers have short-term contracts and employers tend to renew these contracts over and over. Why? Because it denies workers their right to maternity leave as well as their seniority bonus. We also have many cases of workers who have been dismissed for being pregnant, or enjoying their right to rest but without receiving their legal allowance. These are typical cases where CLEC can provide legal support.
Q: What about overtime issues?
A: Excessive overtime is the cause of many health problems. But it’s above all the symptom of the low wages in Cambodia. It is not possible to survive without overtime in the garment sector. With your minimum wage, the health allowance and the attendance bonus, you get 73 dollars. Since you often have to pay 30 dollars for a simple room, you have no choice but to eat for one dollar a day. I’s as simple as that. But you need to send money to your family and cover your daily expenses. That’s why the majority of workers work more than 10 hours a day. Some even work seven days a week. They don’t have a choice. But even if they had the choice, they couldn’t refuse overtime because of their precarious contracts and the fear of losing their job.
Q: This is a human problems, but also a legal problem…
A: Absolutely. The Cambodian labor law is crystal clear on the issue of wages. Articles 104 and 107 specify that the minimum wage must guarantee decent living and human dignity. Specifically, the minimum wage paid for a 48-hours week must cover the worker’s basic needs – as well as those of his/her dependents – and be regularly revised to match with the inflation. But these two conditions are not met today. This is the responsibility of the state. Legally, the government has the obligation to guarantee a decent living for garment workers. This failure from the state is an opportunity for brands and manufacturers to get rid of their corporate social responsibility in Cambodia. This public failure is also the source of thousands of human problems. Women work too much, they eat less, they sleep less, they don’t go to the doctor… They are extremely vulnerable. That is why thousands of them fainted in 2010 and 2011. And the trend will go on this year.
Q: The Cambodian state is thus the first responsible for this situation?
A: Yes, because he is the one defining wages and violating its own legislation. On the paper, the Cambodian law and the legal system are excellent. We have a 3-level court system – first court, appeal and Supreme Court – and an Arbitration Council dealing with labor disputes. But the judicial system is not independent and decisions of the Arbitration Council are not always binding. That’s why workers try to avoid the judicial system and rely on strikes and on international campaigns.
We desperately need to have an independent labor court whose decisions are binding. CLEC has studied the models and functioning of such courts in other Asian countries. We will submit our recommendations to the government and to the unions pretty soon. But if the future Cambodian labor court is also a politically oriented body, then we’d better rely on the Arbitration Council…
Q: What is the responsibility of brands regarding wages?
A: They also bear a huge responsibility. Of course, brands are not NGOs and business is not philanthropy. But they have to respect their national laws and their codes of conduct. These codes underline the necessity to respect human rights, including the right to a decent work. Brands make a lot of fuss about their CSR. But if they want to be credible – especially with their clients – they need to be more responsive to the challenges faced by garment workers.
The faintings that occur regularly in Cambodia are already signs that brands’ commitment to decent work is not put into practice. A few months ago, Puma’s supplier Huey Chen was faced with massive faintings in Cambodia. I went there to estimate the number of victims. I interviewed workers and local shop owners, and they told me that at least 300 workers had fainted. I reported this to the media, but Puma immediately replied that “only” 131 workers had fainted. “Only”? This kind of reply is symptomatic, even if Puma eventually came up with a ‘correction plan’.
Q: But what is the interest for brands to push for better wages in the supply chain?
A: As businesses, brands should respect basic economic principles, like the link between productivity and wages. Studies in Cambodia have shown that workers employed for a couple of years constantly increase their added value and productivity: they gain skills, sew faster, are more precise... But at the same time, wages are getting lower and contracts are getting shorter. Economically speaking, that does not make sense. Brands must assume higher wages if they want to keep skilled people working for them. Better wages means higher productivity, better quality, better reputation and a justified price increase for the consumer. Moreover, Cambodia is already experiencing a shortage of workers willing to join garment factories because of the poor working conditions. Even faced with an important unemployment, Cambodian workers now prefer to join booming sectors like services and tourism. Brands and manufacturers should be worried about this.
Q: Business awareness will take time. Until then, striking seems to be the only way for workers to get better wages. Do you agree?
A: You are right. Given the failure of the legal system to protect workers and the absence of a wage adjustment mechanism, strikes have been the key weapon to increase salaries in the sector. But this path is not sustainable for the future. Strikes are extremely costly for the workers and for the employers. It hinders the industrial relations. Moreover, there is a growing criminalization of human rights activists in Cambodia, and union leaders can easily face judicial charges of ‘incitement’. That is a real problem today.
That’s why we need to work on all levels of society, from top to down. We have to promote the rule of law and the enforcement of good governance policies. And we need workers to constantly defend their rights with solid, legal arguments.
Q: Specifica, how do you help workers in dealing with these legal aspects?
A: We organize small meetings with local union leaders and provide them with adapted training sessions on labor law, civil law and criminal procedures. We also train them to prepare cases to be presented before the Arbitration Council. Even if its decisions are not binding, they are an important tool since brands, national and international stakeholders regularly affirm their support to the AC and its decisions.
The workers we train meet each other every 3 months to talk about their experiences. During these meetings, we also make an update on legislation and developments in the garment sector. To encourage them to actively use their knowledge, we have set up a symbolic incentives system. If they manage to bring a case to their employer and to reach an agreement, we give them one dollar. If they manage to bring the case to conciliation at the ministry level, they get 2 dollars. And if they push their case to the Arbitration Council, we give them 3 dollars. This system works very well – unfortunately for our budget [laugh].
These trainings really empower workers. I can see this day after day. They feel extremely proud to speak out, to accompany their colleagues to the court, to participate in meetings with the employers. There’s a new generation of activists emerging today. They are extremely motivated to learn and practice labor law. That is very encouraging, even if the road ahead is long and perilous.