Thirteen employees at a Puma-supplying factory have lost their jobs after participating in a union election earlier this year.
The Kandal province-based supplier, Eastcrown Footwear Industries, has repeatedly engaged in union-busting practices and harassment of workers, say labor rights activists and union members.
“I think this is union discrimination, not a layoff following labor law,” said the union’s president, Soeng Votum.
Elected to be the union’s president in February, Votum was not rehired by the factory when her short-term, three-month contract expired on May 15. Since April, 13 of the factory’s 16 union members have not had their short-term contracts renewed.
Nine of the union members, including Votum, had previously lost their jobs at the factory last year when they tried to form a union in August.
“The first time and the second time, they dismissed us. They are still persecuting us,” Votum said. “I think if [Puma’s] customers pressure the company, they will bring us back.”
Last year, the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) appealed to German footwear brand Puma, which led to Votum and her colleagues regaining their jobs in early January.
Cambodia’s Trade Union Law expressly prohibits “discrimination on ground of union activities” including as “an employment renewal condition.”
The use of short-term contracts has been identified by Human Rights Watch and labor rights groups as a key way for garment factories to exercise control over workers, including as a threat against union organizing and advocacy.
Ann YouSa, a vice union leader, first lost her job in October last year and then failed to have her contract renewed on April 11. She and her husband, the factory’s elected union treasurer Em Sambath, came back to their hometown in Prey Veng province. YouSa has returned to farming and Sambath has taken jobs as a truck driver, but their combined pay is still not enough to support them.
“I did not earn any money because I was at home,” she said. “And my husband has been transporting dirt for a week, but he did not get any tasks to do because it was raining.”
On May 5, Votum said the union members met with the company and the Labor Ministry but no solution was reached. Votum said she has little faith that the Labor Ministry’s efforts to facilitate negotiations will lead her to get rehired by the company. She remains in Phnom Penh and said without work she has difficulty paying rent.
Union members also say they have faced harassment in the months after they formed the union. According to worker reports compiled by Central, union members have been closely monitored by other staff members at the factory, including being filmed, photographed and followed to their homes. Other union workers report they were restricted from working overtime.
One staff member has reportedly shouted at union members, yelling insults such as “cheap woman” and “useless woman.” Votum and another union member allege that staff members have pushed and physically assaulted Votum and snatched union documents from her hands.
Central’s program manager Khun Tharo said that the elected union leaders and founders are entitled to special protection from being dismissed before, during and after the union election. He added that the conduct of the staff who have harassed the union members is considered serious misconduct and that those employees should be terminated according to Cambodia labor law.
“Central demands that those persons who were involved in threats, intimidation and harassment against the elected union leaders/founders shall be held accountable with concrete actions to be taken immediately,” Tharo said.
Eastcrown’s management attended a 2021 workshop facilitated by Puma and the U.N.’s Better Factories Cambodia, which covered “the rights and obligations of employers, unions and worker representatives and workplace relations,” a Puma representative told CamboJA in an email.
Van E Hong, an Eastcrown Footwear Industries administrator, denied allegations that the factory was discriminating against union members. He said the dismissals were due to downturns in the global economy leading to mass layoffs across the garment industry.
“This is the accusation of the plaintiff, but in fact, the company has announced that the company is facing a global economic crisis,” Hong said. “So, based on the contract, the person who reaches the end of their contract, we do not continue to give him [employment].”
He added that if the factory receives good orders then the company will rehire the workers.
“If there are goods to make, we will call experienced workers. The company will still need [them],” he said.
As for the report of physical assault from Votum, Hong said the company handed the matter over to the police.
Neng Sotheany, a commune police officer, said that he did not follow up on the report of the alleged assault because union workers did not file any complaint to him.
Votom said she chose not to file a complaint with the police because she believes the alleged assault fell within the purview of the Ministry of Labor and should be dealt with by the ministry, not the police.
Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to requests for comment.
Kerstin Neuber, Puma’s senior head of communications, told CamboJA via email that since April the brand has received the factory’s retrenchment plan indicating anticipated job losses, interviewed three trade union leaders and conducted an on-site visit.
“The selection of workers for retrenchment [lay-offs] was based on employment contract expiry date, however Better Factory [sic] Cambodia conducted an assessment early May and the results are still being discussed with factory management,” Neuber wrote.
Neuber said the Labor Ministry is aware of the union members’ request for reinstatement and that the ministry’s report on the dispute was expected to be finished by late June.
The factory’s owner, Chinese conglomerate Xinlong Group, “remains a key partner” for Puma and “Cambodia remains a key production country,” Neuber said.
Votum, the union leader, said the union members would continue to fight for reinstatement even if the Labor Ministry and Puma did not help them get their jobs back.
“We will continue to file a complaint without giving up,” she said.
This post is also available in: Khmer