Report: Barriers to Representation: Freedom of Association in Cambodia


Barriers to Representation: Freedom of Association in Cambodia

This report functions as a component of an ongoing project between CENTRAL, CATU, and C.CAWDU to document the extent to which Freedom of Association (FOA) has been contravened across Cambodia’s garment, footwear, and travel goods factories, undermining the country’s human rights commitments, violating the country’s constitution and labor law, and weakening the ability of international brands to undertake robust due diligence within their supply chains.

As the first report issued under this initiative, this publication evaluates Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) and whether their current processes appropriately assess and adequately report on employer-imposed barriers to freedom of association. As part of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Better Work Program,[1] one of BFC’s core activities is to monitor export apparel factories’ compliance against international labor standards to inform brands and buyers of labor conditions in each factory. BFC currently assesses working conditions in 703 factories across Cambodia, employing approximately 651,000 workers.[2]

As part of this process, compliance reports can be purchased by brands and buyers, with summarized versions made available to workers, representative unions, and the general public on BFC’s Transparency Database.

Over a one-year period, our team conducted a series of interviews with union leaders and representatives from 14 BFC registered factories to assess their members’ ability to access and understand BFC public data as well as to evaluate the accuracy of the publicly available compliance reports in relation to FOA criteria. Our interviews with factory unions and workers revealed multiple challenges for workers in both accessing and utilizing this data. Workers also identified considerable inconsistencies between the data and their lived experiences. Despite perfect BFC scores on FOA criteria at all the 14 factories included in this study, union representatives at 10 of the 14 workplaces reportedly faced obstructions to FOA including verbal intimidation, threats, harassment, and blacklisting, severely affecting their ability to function.

Drawing from focus groups, a worker survey, and follow-up interviews, we found that:

1) Independent unions included in this study reported that the BFC’s Transparency Database and publicly available compliance reports were not useful in addressing FOA compliance complaints. Workers and union leaders included in this study reported that the data remains burdensome for both unions and workers to access, difficult to understand, and lacks sufficiently granular information to be useful in their negotiations with employers and/or brands.

2) A majority of union leaders found the BFC compliance reports for their factories to be inaccurate and not reflective of the reality on the ground. Representatives from 10 of the 14 factories included in this study reported that despite perfect compliance scores for their workplaces according to the BFC Transparency Database, FOA violations are widespread in their workplaces. Public compliance reports also fall short in disclosing FOA compliance details, limiting the reports’ utility in negotiations. This raises questions about the accuracy of the reports and/or potential flaws in the data summarization methods.

3) Cambodian union activity is being eclipsed by constant surveillance and monitoring by company-affiliated unions, and a prevailing atmosphere of distrust. There is significant evidence pointing to management’s use of “yellow unions” to harass and intimidate independent unions and reports of blacklisting, preventing dismissed unionists from being employed elsewhere. Such practices are seldom captured in conventional social audits, BFC’s included.

Because BFC compliance reports are produced by the ILO, they carry substantial weight and credibility in the international arena. While Cambodia legally ensures freedom of association, both structural and operational barriers obstruct workers and unions from fully exercising these rights. Beyond the factory walls, administrative and judicial barriers further hinder union work, exemplified by lengthy union registration and MRS certification processes, and the debilitation of the Arbitration Council. Without being able to rely on the domestic legal system, unions have looked to BFC to assist in documenting non- compliance. In theory, BFC’s tripartite structure should allow for robust and accurate documentation of FOA violations for both unions as well as the brands relying on these assessments as part of their due diligence. In reality, this is not possible if the reports are inaccurate. If violations are not being picked up by these reports, the result is unchecked and undocumented union suppression, obscuring the reality of working in BFC factories.

In recognizing the pivotal role that BFC has played in Cambodia, we wish to emphasize that any critiques within this report are not meant to undermine the important work BFC and Better Work have accomplished in improving working conditions, safeguarding worker rights, and ensuring the country’s competitiveness as an ethical sourcing destination. Rather, through this publication, we seek to highlight how the BFC’s assessment of FOA can be improved to create a safer and more respectful environment for independent unions to operate, which in turn facilitates industrial relations and greater productivity.


Barriers to Representation: Freedom of Association in Cambodia

This post is also available in: Khmer

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