Unions: Women Workers Need Support During Pregnancy and Postpartum

Union leaders have urged the government to carry out inspections and restrict employers who fail to implement the laws protecting women workers during pregnancy, especially in factories, and the entertainment and construction sectors. Photo from Tola Moeun

Three separate union leaders from different sectors all reported that employers deliberately find ways around the laws put in place to protect women’s rights in the workplace and called for greater enforcement

PHNOM PENH--Union leaders have urged the government to carry out inspections and restrict employers who fail to implement the laws protecting women workers during pregnancy, especially in factories, and the entertainment and construction sectors.

This comes at a time where pregnant women have participated in a strike at Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld after the casino’s union said women who became pregnant were specifically targeted for layoffs earlier this year.

Union leaders complained that while laws exist to protect women, they’re rarely effective in practice and women continue to face discrimination. Many, the unionist said, are often fired when their employer discovers they’re pregnant and very few workplaces have bothered to establish nurseries.

Xu Chhloun, vice president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, said that most female construction workers were fired by their employers during pregnancy.

He noted that in most of these cases, women workers were forced to quit over concerns for their health while working—the employers, Chhloun said, often found ways to get rid of pregnant staff.

“When the boss finds out that workers are pregnant, they start thinking of finding an excuse to fire them,” he said. “This problem is due to the employers avoiding responsibility.”

Chhloun said that many employers and supervisors within the construction sector are already concealing the true number of staff on site and trying to reduce the company’s legal obligations, particularly in relation to the National Social Security Fund, so pregnant women are easy targets.

Oxfam reported in 2019 that of the 1.6 million Cambodians employed in the informal sector, which includes both the construction and entertainment sectors, 79 percent are women.

Meanwhile, in the services and entertainment sector, unionists said that it’s rare to see pregnant women working because most business owners won’t allow it.

Ou Tep Phallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation said that this case was not only discriminatory, but also a motivating factor for women to quit their jobs or have abortions.

“Not that they do not want to have children, but the factors of life leave them only one choice. If they want to continue working, then they’re forced to have an abortion while other women choose to stop working,” she said.

Similar issues are harder to pin down in the garment sector, said Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, who added he didn’t have specific data, but noted it was common for women to be forced to resign so that factory owners don’t need to support them through and after the pregnancy.

“Some workers in small factories have been fired and some have not received protection from the National Social Security Fund because some factories hide employee data,” he said.

According to a report by the Ministry of Labor in 2019, there were more than 700,000 workers in the garment industry, 70 percent of whom were women.

Needs for Childcare and Stronger Law Enforcement

In addition to problems during pregnancy, female workers also experience problems after childbirth, especially the lack of a day nursery for childcare.

Both Chhloun and Phallin said that neither the construction nor the entertainment sectors provide day nurseries, while Thorn said that factories directly serving well-known brands are increasingly providing childcare options to a predominantly female workforce.

These issues once again highlight the gulf between Cambodia’s legislation and the practical implementation of the law. Article 46 of the Constitution states that's prohibited to terminate a female employee due to pregnancy and women have the right to maternity leave with paid wages along with seniority payments and other social benefits.

According to the Labor Law, Article 182 also states that employers are prohibited for dismissing female employees during childbirth, even by prior notice. In addition, workers are entitled to paid leave, weekly breaks, maternity leave, annual leave and special leave of no more than seven days at any event.

Both the Labor Law and the Constitution make it clear that in all enterprises, women have the right to maternity leave, of which the Labor Law provides for three months for childbirth.

In addition to its own laws, Cambodia has signed many other conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and the Convention on the Protection of the Motherland.

Women workers whose children are under one year of age are also entitled to an hour a day to breastfeed their baby, but earlier this year, a police officer in Stung Treng Province was initially reprimanded for breastfeeding her child while on duty and posting it to social media. An online backlash quickly saw the officer go from persecution to promotion.

Any business with 100 female employers must either establish a nursery for children or pay for their staff to find a nursery off-site, the Labor Law states in Articles 185 and 186, but the union leaders all agreed that these laws rarely play out in practice.

More Inspections, More Professionally Carried Out

As such, they urged the government to put more effort into ensuring the law is enforced in relation to women’s rights in the workplace—the Ministry of Labor in particular, they said, should do more thorough inspections and reprimand employers with irregularities.

Chhloun of the construction sector union said that the Labor Ministry’s reports are rarely disclosed and, on many sites, the authorities only visit supervisors or employers so that workers cannot voice their concerns.

“We want the authorities and especially the Labor Ministry to strengthen its work to ensure the safety of staff,” Chhloun said.

Phallin also said government inaction has allowed employers to get away without meeting their legal obligations to employers. She emphasized that the non-fulfillment of these obligations is often due to corruption, with rich business owners paying their way through inspections.

“Some officials did not inspect the entertainment venue at night because they said it was too late for work duties and authorities did not dare to check some because the big entertainment venues are all run by powerful people, rich people,” she said. “This proves the inaction of law enforcement continues.”

Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training could not be reached at press time, but union leaders all said that Sour’s ministry needed to do more to protect women.

They called on the government to do more than just issue laws, adding that they felt proper enforcement was needed if gender inequality is to progress in Cambodia.

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