Union leaders at risk of imprisonment if they take part in protests

2014 Garment Protests Cambodia
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Six trade union leaders in Cambodia received two and a half year suspended prison sentences on 11 December. They were also fined the equivalent of $8,600 after being convicted of “instigating intentional acts of violence” among other offences. This stemmed from their alleged involvement in protests in 2013-14 which called for an increased minimum wage for garment workers. At the time, workers were paid as little as $75 dollars a month, with any wage increases meeting only increases in rent and other expenses. During the protests, four workers were killed by the police.

Global trade unions, including Industriall, condemned their sentencing, claiming that the sentences are “unjust”.

Dubious decision

A joint statement from five global trade unions slammed the way the verdict was reached:

Originally, all six union leaders had been directly charged with having caused violence and damage to property. The union leaders’ trial was held on those charges. When the court handed down judgment, the charges were changed from the direct charges of committing the acts to charges of instigating those acts. No trial was held regarding these altered charges. Moreover, no notice of the changes to the charges was given to either the accused or their lawyers. The altered charges were only revealed when the court passed judgment.

It also highlighted the lack of evidence for the conviction:

During the trial, the prosecutor stated that, although there was evidence that violence and damage to property had occurred, there was no evidence to show that the accused had committed such acts. No evidence was submitted to prove that the six union leaders had instigated any of the acts with which they were charged.

According to the global unions, the court has gone against Cambodian criminal proceedings:

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We note that Article 357 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that the facts in a judgment must be clear and beyond reasonable doubt. Article 2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure further states that the purpose of a criminal action is to examine the existence of a criminal offence and to prove the guilt of an offender.

In the absence of any evidence submitted to court, we cannot see how the court has convicted these six union leaders on charges that were not even the subject of the trial.

Impact on trade unions in Cambodia

But the criticism doesn’t stop there. In fact, the global unions argue that it is part of attempts to intimidate and undermine trade unions in Cambodia.

General secretary of Industriall, Valter Sanches said:

We call on the government to intervene and see that the convictions against the six trade union leaders are overturned, and that all outstanding cases against union leaders and activists are dropped. The courts are being used to crush independent unions in direct violation of fundamental international labour conventions that Cambodia has ratified.

This was also echoed by the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union president Ath Thorn:

This court decision is unacceptable, and prevents us from exercising our right to represent our unions and our workers.

And the joint statement from the global unions expressed their view that trade unions in Cambodia are “under direct threat”:

These convictions are another example of the oppression faced by independent union leaders in Cambodia. These convictions signal that freedom of association and independent trade unionism in Cambodia remains under direct threat.


The global unions have further concerns that the convicted union leaders will face prison if they take part in further protests:

Whilst the sentence does not require those convicted to go to prison, they face imprisonment for these charges if they commit any other felony or misdemeanour within the next five years…As the criminal charges stem from independent trade union activity, we hold grave fears that these suspended sentences will be used to imprison the convicted if they engage in any protest action over the next five years.

Wider context

These convictions haven’t happened in isolation.

Human Rights Watch has alleged the Cambodian government has had opposition leaders arrested, dissolved opposition political parties and forced the closure of independent media outlets. The government has also been accused of introducing laws designed to prohibit trade union activity. And Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of human rights activists facing criminal charges.

These convictions of trade union leaders are therefore highly worrying. They represent part of a much wider problem of political repression in Cambodia. In the context of this crackdown on dissent and trade unions, the struggle for workers’ rights will become much harder.

Featured image via Screengrab.

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