Cambodia: Serious shortcomings in Trade Union Law demand international response


The Trade Union Law, adopted on 4 April, does not address key concerns of experts and local civil society; in addition, it fails to comply with Cambodia’s international obligations. This move signals further backsliding on human rights which should mobilise the international community.

(Geneva) – Despite coming under scrutiny each year by the Human Rights Council, Cambodia has been a case example of the use of restrictive laws to shut down civil society space and criminalise the activities of defenders, said ISHR today. The most recent blow came on 4 April, with the adoption by the National Assembly of a highly problematic trade union law. Lawmakers have indicated the Senate will vote on the law on Tuesday 19 April. 

The ILO diplomatically noted that the law, as adopted, fails to cover key constituents – civil servants, teachers, and domestic workers – and ignores the extensive, tripartite and transparent consultations that would have been critical to its success.

Other stakeholders have been more blunt.

In an open letter to brands dated 22 March, the Clean Clothes Campaign and ten Cambodian unions and human rights organisations raised concerns about infringements on freedom of association. They urged major European brands to make compliance with international standards a condition for sourcing in the country. Human Rights Watch has been quoted in media reports as saying the law present ‘a further downward slide for labor rights in Cambodia.’  

On 30 March, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh released its own analysis of the draft law, emphasising issues with ‘vague or unclear’ provisions and the authoritative role given to the Ministry in charge of labour. The analysis noted that its late publication stems from ‘[the OHCHR’s] own exclusion from the consultation process.’

The UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia traveled to the country from 21-31 March, and at the end of her mission released a lengthy statement highlighting the need for more work to combat discrimination against women and indigenous peoples. Regrettably, the report merely said that the imminent law was ‘causing concern’, rather than clearly spelling out its lack of compliance with international human rights standards. This missed an opportunity for important intervention at a critical time.

Says Sarah M Brooks, ISHR’s Asia advocate, ‘Cambodia’s willingness to overlook, or even downplay, international concerns has been present for years. The Law on Associations and NGOs, adopted last year, was indicative of that. The continued downward trajectory and sidelining of civil society in the policymaking process raise real concerns about the situation for human rights defenders in Cambodia’.

‘The involvement of defenders and civil society in the drafting and implementation of legislation is critical; instead, in Cambodia, they face intimidation and harassment, including from judicial authorities. In this context, we would have liked to see a UN full-court press to prevent passage of this law without further consultation’.

NGOs and media have also reported that demonstrations against the passage of the law were dispersed with force by public authorities on Monday, resulting in injuries to some protestors. Given UN expert concerns about similar violence in the context of demonstrations in the past, a public and unequivocal reminder to the Cambodian government about their obligation to respect the right to peaceful assembly may have helped.

If the UN has been hesitant to react publicly to the law’s passage, the private sector has largely reinforced the calls of global unions and civil society. The Ethical Trade Initiative, a multistakeholder group, responded promptly to the adoption of the law, noting that it ‘falls short’ on range of key issues, including on the right to strike.

‘In past years, international brands spoke out against repressive action to disperse striking workers, and called for a sustainable solution,’ says Ms Brooks. '‘Now again we see some global brands, including H&M, emphasising the importance of legislation that aligns with international standards and that is drafted in a transparent and consultative manner.'

Corporations and human rights defenders alike have a shared interest in an operating environment which respects the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and public participation, which promotes transparency and access to information, and which upholds the rule of law. 

'There is great potential for the private sector to have a positive impact on the legal environment for civil society in Cambodia, and we call on more multinational corporations to follow this lead.’ 

Sarah M. Brooks is Asia programme manager and advocate at ISHR. She can be reached at s.brooks[at], or follow her on Twitter at @sarahmcneer.


  • Asia
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • Cambodia