After Sreu Neang lost his job at Cinlon factory in June 2022, where he had recently been elected to serve as a newly formed union’s president, the Ministry of Labor ordered the reinstatement of Neang and two other union leaders in July. But more than nine months later, the Kampong Speu based factory has still refused to comply despite multiple government orders, reflecting an increasingly oppressive environment for unions and a lack of government ability or will to enforce labor law, labor rights groups and workers say.
Neang, who like the other two fired Cinlon union leaders had been on an unbounded contract with the factory, described the unexpected loss of his job as “a nightmare.” He has struggled to provide for his three-month old son and meet $150 monthly microfinance payments through intermittent work in construction or collecting mangoes for around $5 a day.
“Now I have no money to buy milk for my child and pay back my loan,” said Neang, 39. “I am so sad about losing my job, they discriminate against the union by laying me off without any acceptable reason.”
Cinlon supplies California-based tote-bag brand CleverMade, according to the Independent Trade Union Federation (INTUFE), which added it has received no response from the brand. While INTUFE says it sought support from the United Nations International Labor Organization, no action has yet been taken. The ILO, CleverMade and Cinlon chairman Wang Longjun did not respond to requests for comment.
Across Cambodia, Cinlon is one of at least 23 factories that have laid off 1,408 workers between 2018 and 2022 for participating in unions, according to the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, citing data from its members. A November 2022 Human Rights Watch report alleged systemic persecution against independent union formation by employers and the Cambodian government.
Cinlon is also a member of the business collective Textile, Apparel, Footwear and Travel Goods Association (TAFTAC) in Cambodia and was approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia in March 2019, expected to generate thousands of jobs following an investment of $23.1 million.
TAFTAC deputy secretary general Kang Monika claimed not to know about the Cinlon case.
“I did not have any comment about that and if the Ministry of Labor already punished [the factory] this follows the practice of law, so why do I need to comment?” he said. “We always want all parties to follow Cambodia law and in case one of the parties does not, the government will work based on the law.”
Yet no action has been taken to enforce the Labor Ministry’s ruling after nearly one year. Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not answer phone calls but responded via Telegram to say his ministry was aware of the case.
“Officials are now working in order to make both parties [factory and workers] continue their procedures,” Sour said.
The Department of Labor Inspection issued a letter on February 1 fining Cinlon 10 million riel, or $2,463, for refusing to comply with Cambodian labor law. The letter added, “at the same time, the company must take the three union leaders back to work.”
Bou Rat, a 28-year-old Kampong Speu native, said since she and her husband, elected as union leaders for Cinlon, were also let go off their jobs when their contract failed, the main issue that they face is financial support for her family.
“I have to mortgage my motorbike to solve daily life since I am in debt $ 2,000,” she said. “I could not accept it when the factory fired us without reason, we formed a union because it is our rights and I want to return to work.”
Because they have no income, they could not send their daughter to private school for grade one as they had before. Now they worked sporadically for several months as mango collectors near their village earning far less than what they earned with their stable jobs at the factory. While the couple eventually found new work at another garment factory in November, the injustice bothers them and they still wish to get their old jobs back.
“I hope the law will help us find justice,” Rat said.
Independent Trade Union Federation president Ry Sethyneth said that the case exposes the Labor Ministry’s inability to get Cinlon to actually comply with the law.
“This is the weakness of the ministry that doesn’t push the factory to follow the law,” Sethyneth said.
He doubted CleverMade would take any action to pressure its supplier, as some other brands have done in similar situations.
“I sent emails to them a lot of times but they did not respond to me, I don’t think they care,” he said.
Khun Tharo, program manager for the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said the factory’s apparent impunity signaled an erosion of labor law, damaging workers’ rights and the future of union formation. He said the next step, the ministry should complain to the court to enforce the law, which appears yet to have happened after nearly one year.
“And if there is no punishment, then the employer can do whatever they want toward the employee,” he said.