Prime Minister Hun Sen announces free legal aid for garment workers

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Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Wednesday that factory workers will also have access to legal representation free of charge. Pha Lina

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Wednesday that factory workers will have access to legal representation free of charge once his volunteer group of his lawyers is established, while civil society groups say the government should instead improve labour law enforcement.

Delivering a speech to garment workers in Kandal province on Wednesday, Hun Sen said he had allocated $500,000 from his own budget to create a group of 50 lawyers to defend disadvantaged women, particularly widows – and that garment workers could also seek help from them free of charge.

“I have already officially decided. Now I have 2,000 million riel or $500,000 in my hand to finance the work of my lawyers. But I am asking Ky Tech, the head of the government’s lawyers, to help me in preparing [the group]. This is not from the state budget. It is a budget I raised to establish a group of lawyers to defend poor clients,” he said.

He said the 50 lawyers would be deployed across Cambodia, with two lawyers for each province and Phnom Penh. They would come under the management of one head and four deputy heads.

“[It is] for defending women who are in prison. This is the policy for our women. I will make it happen in a short period of time. Nieces [and] nephews, as garment workers, if [you] have court cases, do not forget to seek help from my lawyers free of charge,” Hun Sen said.

National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia president Som Aun said he supported the move, believing that poor women, especially female garment workers, would now have qualified defence lawyers to help them if they found themselves in court.

“Currently, we notice that when the poor and weak have problems in court, most of them do not have the capacity to hire lawyers because they do not have enough money, and some lawyers are not so experienced. This means they lose a lot of their cases,” he said.

Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (Central) executive director Moeun Tola praised the positive intentions in creating the lawyers’ group but wanted the government, through the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, to provide unions with the freedom to operate and have other related rights as stated in the Labour Law.

He said the government should put its weight behind improving the work of officials who mediate in labour disputes as some abused their position.

“Labour inspectors have rights to judge who is right and wrong. Mediating officials do not have the right to do so."

“They only have the right to explain the law regarding employers’ and employees’ responsibilities. So let the two parties try to reconcile. If they don’t reach a deal, the mediators can file a report with the minister [of Labour and Vocational Training] and the arbitration council."

“In general, we observe that mediators act beyond their remit. They act as judges in deciding whether employers are right or workers are wrong . . . Workers have pointed out that when mediators behave like that, it can involve corruption,” he said.

Ministry’s spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment.