Cambodia: Smear Campaign against Labor Group


Cambodia: Smear Campaign against Labor Group

ILO, Global Brands Should Denounce Threats Following Freedom of Association Report

(Bangkok) – Cambodian government-aligned unions are harassing and threatening legal action against the labor rights organization Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) and its leadership following the group’s report on freedom of association violations in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. The report was released with partners from Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), part of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Better Work program, which operates in 13 countries, including Cambodia.

The ILO and global brands and retail partners who engage with BFC, including Adidas, C&A, Gap Inc., H&M, Inditex, and Nike, should urge the Cambodian authorities to cease efforts to intimidate or censor CENTRAL and its leadership and engage with the report’s recommendations to improve the program.

“The smearing and judicial harassment of CENTRAL for their work on freedom of association for workers and unions threatens not just labor rights but all critical reporting by civil society in Cambodia,” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The ILO, Better Factories Cambodia, and the brands who rely on their reporting should condemn efforts to hinder their work.”

CENTRAL’s report, “Barriers to Representation: Freedom of Association in Cambodia – an assessment of Better Factories Cambodia’s FOA compliance monitoring,” released on June 4, 2024, includes findings from a series of focus group discussions with 78 union representatives from 24-factory level unions in 22 factories in December 2022. These discussions were held with union representatives affiliated with the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Worker Democratic Unions. In June 2023, the researchers also carried out a small-scale survey with local union representatives from 14 factories registered with the ILO-BFC program.

The report provides important “shadow data” and documents obstructions to freedom of association, including verbal intimidation, threats, harassment, and blacklisting, which it says have “severely” affected independent unions’ ability to function. It also includes workers’ knowledge about BFC compliance data, including the digital literacy of factory-level union representatives and workers, their ability to find the monitoring program’s summary findings online, the inability of unions to purchase the program’s full findings (priced at US$1,500 per report), and the barriers independent unions experience in engaging constructively in factory-level Performance Improvement Consultative Committees.

CENTRAL makes concrete recommendations regarding the ways the ILO-BFC could improve its program, including through more robust disclosures, making its full reports available to workers, and introducing a specialized grievance-redress mechanism for ILO-BFC factories on inaccurate monitoring data. Such measures are important to ensure constructive dialogue to better protect workers’ freedom of association and improve the ILO-BFC program, including its Transparency Database, which reports information about a range of compliance issues, including freedom of association.

BFC is a joint program of the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank Group institution that promotes the private sector in developing countries, and the ILO. Publicly available documents from this year’s International Labour Conference, which took place between June 3-14 in Geneva, indicate that the ILO is concerned about severe problems workers and trade unions face in Cambodia, including “serious violations of basic civil liberties essential to the exercise of freedom of association … violence, intimidation, arrest and imprisonment of trade unionists for carrying peaceful industrial action.”

Following publication of the report, many unions widely considered to be government-aligned have initiated an apparently coordinated effort to urge Cambodia’s Interior Ministry to investigate CENTRAL’s operations and finances, participating in protests on June 14 and June 20 outside CENTRAL’s office. They accused CENTRAL of “damaging the country’s international reputation” and “impacting the national economy and the welfare of workers, purportedly at the behest of foreign donors.”

Three government-aligned unions have also filed unwarranted complaints with the Interior Ministry, requesting investigations of CENTRAL and its leadership.

On June 27, the government-aligned Cambodian Confederation of Workers Rights Protection Unions, filed a complaint at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the first of three complaints directed at CENTRAL. It alleged that CENTRAL’s program manager, Tharo Khun had publicly defamed it and accused him of incitement to discrimination, a crime that carries a one to three-year prison sentence. The complaint against Tharo’s alleged comments do not fit the definition of incitement to discriminate under article 496 of Cambodia’s criminal code. Cambodia’s incitement law is problematic and has been found by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to be inconsistent with international human rights standards. During a 2022 UN Human Rights Committee dialogue, a committee expert also expressed concern at the number of people who had been imprisoned under the criminal code provisions on incitement, insult, and defamation in the past five years.

On June 27, 44 civil society and community groups issued a joint statement against the Interior Ministry’s decision to investigate CENTRAL as a “clear reprisal and an attempt to intimidate an NGO [nongovernmental organization] that is committed to improving the freedom of association for all Cambodian workers and unions.” The statement also calls on the ILO, the International Finance Corporation, and BFC “to publicly acknowledge the value of critical research in improving its programmes’ operation and implementation.”

On June 28, Interior Minister Sar Sokha issued a letter to the executive director of CENTRAL, Moeun Tola, demanding information about all its bank accounts in Cambodia within 30 days. This action foreshadows an arbitrary investigation into CENTRAL’s activities and its compliance with its bylaws under Cambodia’s highly criticized Law on Associations and NGOs. The consequences for CENTRAL could be dire, potentially leading to its registration being revoked, Human Rights Watch said.

On June 30, the government-aligned National Labour Confederation of Cambodia also submitted the second of three complaints in the form of a petition to the Interior Minister, urging an expedited investigation and legal action against CENTRAL and reportedly stating that if CENTRAL fails to retract its report as “demanded by numerous union leaders,” the confederation would consider taking legal action against it.

On July 2, a government-aligned union, National Trade Union Coalition submitted the third of three complaints to the Ministry of Interior, demanding the ministry investigate CENTRAL’s June 4 report and the organization’s activities and alleging that the report lacked clear sources and evidence, was not scientifically researched, and defamed the freedom of trade unions in Cambodia.

CENTRAL have previously faced direct and indirect threats in the past but this particular smear campaign is unique in that it appears to be a coordinated attack to force them to change their reporting or risk facing legal action or being shut down.

In May 2024, a number of UN member states also made recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council, calling on Cambodia to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, labor groups, and freedom of association, including the improvement of working conditions and labor standards.

“Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior should make clear that reporting on freedom of association is not an illegal activity and is no basis for punitive investigations into the operations of labor rights organizations,” Lau said. “Governments, embassies, and global brands invested in Cambodia’s garment, footwear, and travel goods sector should speak out against government harassment of CENTRAL and promote freedom of association, independent labor advocacy, and the security of rights defenders in Cambodia.”


You are donating to : Donation

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note