Cambodia: Politically-Motivated Conviction of Worker Leaders Overturned

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova and Jessica Champagne
Date:July 17, 2019
Re:Cambodia: Politically-Motivated Conviction of Worker Leaders Overturned

We are writing to share a piece of good news from Cambodia, where the courts have overturned the conviction of six union leaders on baseless criminal charges.

As we have reported previously, the Royal Government of Cambodia levied baseless charges against six union leaders with participating in violent acts and property destruction during mass worker protests in 2014.

After delaying the trial of these leaders for close to five years and placing onerous restrictions on their ability to fulfill their union responsibilities, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted the leaders on a different set of charges, related to instigation rather than participation in violence and property destruction, in December 2018. The charges and convictions were widely decried by both labor and human rights groups a politically motivated effort to further restrict associational rights for Cambodian workers.

On May 28, the Cambodian Court of Appeals voided the conviction of the six union leaders and acquitted them of all charges stemming from this case. This decision comes in the context of the European Union’s decision to review Cambodia’s status in the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade program; the potential loss of trade benefits has placed additional pressure on the Cambodian government to address critical human rights issues. The review period will be a key window to push for additional positive steps by the government, including amending the Trade Union Law to remove impediments to workers’ ability to exercise their fundamental associational rights.

The overturning of these convictions is a welcome development in a challenging context. The reduced space for freedom of association in Cambodia in recent years has posed significant challenges to university code compliance and the WRC’s role as an independent monitor. Most significantly, it has reduced the ability of workers to effectively advocate for themselves at the factory level and to identify and address violations.

Since 2014, the WRC has played a key role in highlighting the importance of this case to licensees, other brands, industry associations, and multistakeholder initiatives. Along with Cambodian and international labor rights groups, the WRC has engaged with key licensees sourcing from Cambodia to urge them to contact the Cambodian government and demand that the charges be withdrawn. It is to the credit of a number of licensees, brands, and organizations like the American Apparel and Footwear Association and Fair Labor Association that they have expressed their concerns regarding these criminal cases to the Cambodian government. The WRC had also successfully pressed a number of licensees and other firms to ensure that their own suppliers withdrew support for the prosecution, which had stemmed from a complaint by the garment manufacturers’ association.

Despite this positive development, the Cambodian government continues to manipulate its criminal justice system to limit and intimidate independent unions. Currently, there are more than 80 outstanding criminal charges against workers and union leaders, including the six key leaders named in the 2014 case. While the WRC has not reviewed every charge, our analysis and that of human rights and labor rights groups in Cambodia suggests that many or all of these charges likely constitute attempts to quash these individuals’ legitimate associational activities, rather than valid charges of wrongdoing based on specific evidence.

The Worker Rights Consortium will continue to engage with key partners, civil society organizations, and licensees regarding the criminalization of worker rights advocacy in Cambodia and other key evolving issues in Cambodia, including the proposed revisions to the Trade Union Law.

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have.