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.
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:
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.
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.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?