Back to the Basics? Labour Rights Institutions and Associational Power in Cambodian Labour Strategies

Monday, 16 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Anna SALMIVAARA, University of Helsinki, Finland
The analysis of new power resources has made an encouraging contribution to the understanding of possibilities of labour revitalization, particularly in the context of the Global North and middle income countries with relatively strong institutions. However, in labour-intensive industries such as the garment sector, globalization has implied the transfer of production away from these countries, into contexts where low salaries are guaranteed by weak legal and institutional frameworks.

This paper contributes to the discussion on labour strategies by examining the potential and limitations of new power resources in a low-income context characterized by a weak rule of law, namely Cambodia. Based on interview data collected during 13 months of fieldwork, the paper shows how Cambodian unions have successfully used institutional and societal power resources to build strategies that draw on innovative regulatory institutions such as the Labour Arbitration Council, buyer’s social responsibility commitments and mobilize international networks to pressure employers. These resources were also used in the 2014 minimum wage campaign that led to unprecedented salary gains for Cambodian garment workers. However, this show of union power triggered an important judicial and political backlash by the government, risking to undo labour’s newly built power. The paper suggests that a more careful analysis is needed to assess the replaceability of labour’s traditional power resources, structural and associational power. Associational power – understood as political leverage - emerges as a key resource to guarantee the sustainability of pro-labour institutions and their impact. Furthermore, it draws attention to the potentially negative impact that private regulation can have on labour movements, if it promotes a depoliticized conception of labour rights that downplays the centrality of trade union rights and labour's political role.