Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Unions in Cambodia Abound, But Unfair Working Conditions Persist

By Hannah CashenPublished November 9, 2014

Cambodia boasts one of the highest union density rates in the world. So why is it still such a dangerous place to work, and why are there so many strikes?
By Hannah Cashen, 11/09/14

Cambodia underwent a colossal restructuring following the Khmer Rouge takeover in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this internal genocide utterly decimated the country, it provided a possibility for Cambodia to reinvent itself from the ground up. In doing so, Cambodia has veered from its past as a small constitutional monarchical society and into a tentative future as a potentially advanced worker and industry-friendly country. That being said, the country has certainly encountered roadblocks along the way. 

Pol Pot, a Cambodian mastermind and brutal dictator, rose to power with his guerilla military to back him in 1975. The reign of terror and confusion began with a mass exodus from Pnomh Penh, Cambodia's capital city, to the countryside to form a communist, agrarian society. Confessions were forced from perpetrators who had no clue what they had done wrong; systematic killings were done by the thousands; the country's infrastructure was demolished as officials' wrongdoings were reported by other citizens who feared the potentially lethal fabrication of their own transgressions. Pol Pot promoted an idealistic agrarian utopia that focused on hands-on labor and veered from cities and factory production. As the New York Times phrased it in upon his death, he "conducted a rule of terror that led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia's seven million people, by the most widely accepted estimates, through execution, torture, starvation and disease." 

When we fast-forward to modern Cambodia, we see a country relearning how to run itself. Following Pol Pot's fall, the government rebuilt itself as an independent entity free of colonial association and despotic dictators. Its economy has become largely factory-driven with a clear focus on cloth production. Approximately 350,000 are employed in garment factories and about 60% of those workers are unionized. But not all of Cambodia's unions are independent; many are affiliated with the government and therefore pose separate issues of fair representation and questionable incentives to cede to employees' demands. This has resulted in a general lack of satisfaction for workers. Conditions remain subpar and hours are long: approximately 200 employees from 55 factories interviewed by Human Rights Watch, an organization that "defends the rights of people worldwide" reported "anti-union discrimination, management harassment, unlawful employment practices, and poor working conditions." 

In order to restructure its economy appropriately, the Cambodian government must enact new legislation. Laws that allow citizens not only to join unions but also to use those unions constructively to make positive changes to the workforce and demand fair working conditions are vital. Cambodian workers deserve a voice, and the country is in a good position to begin speaking up for them.