Cambodian union leaders say Prime Minister Hun Sen’s promise of free legal benefits to vulnerable women, including garment factory workers, was prompted by the European Union threatening to withdraw the Everything But Arms agreement.

Late last month, the prime minister Hun Sen told garment factory workers that he would pay $500,000 from his own funds to finance a team of 50 lawyers who are to provide legal support to female workers who find themselves in legal disputes, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

He also called on factory owners not to dismiss factory workers as a way to solve conflicts. In January, Phnom Penh-based W&D factory, a supplier of the British retailer Marks and Spencers, fired some 1,200 factory workers after they protested demanding improved work conditions.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the free legal service would start “very soon” and would be given to “vulnerable women, including female workers” and be dealt with in regional offices across the country.

On February 11, the European Union announced it had officially begun the withdrawal procedure for Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, under which least-developed countries such as Cambodia can export to the EU tariff-free.

Ou Tephalin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, believes Hun Sen’s promise was part of a strategy to prevent the EU’s preferential trade agreement from being withdrawn.

“I think it’s also related to the EBA. He [Hun Sen] wants to show to the international [community] that he tries to reform something… because he tries to maintain EBA,” she said.

FILE - Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, leans over a garment worker during a v
FILE – Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, leans over a garment worker during a visit to a factory outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 30, 2017.

But spokesman Heng Sour denied any connection between the new promises and EBA. “There is no linkage of such initiative to the EBA,” he said in a message to VOA. “It is a complement to some NGOs’ service. It is good for the people who are in need.”

Unless Cambodia sees substantial improvements in its human rights record, the European Union will suspend the agreement for Cambodia and regular taxes will apply. Over the next six months, the EU will engage in a monitoring mission to Cambodia to assess the situation.

Cambodia relies heavily on trade with the EU, with more than 40 percent of its exports going to countries in the community.

But while Tephalin welcomed the initiative, she said more wide-ranging reforms were needed to prevent corruption and serve justice to the people. Union leaders and workers could only win a court case if the case did not involve someone “who has the power,” she said.

Kong Athit, vice president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), agreed that Hun Sen’s move seemed aimed at preventing the withdrawal of the EBA agreement, or at least mitigating its effects.

“Maybe his [Hun Sen] prediction [is] that there will be a lot of demand for the legal service for the workers,” he said, explaining that if the Everything But Arms agreement was withdrawn, some factories might have to close and workers could find themselves in front of the court to fight for their rights.

Athit said that while the promise could be seen as a political move to both gain support from the garment industry and prevent EBA from being withdrawn, the effectiveness of the legal aid service would depend on its technical implementation.

For Tephalin, preventing the EBA from being withdrawn lies exclusively in the hands of the government.

“The only problem is: Is the government willing to reform, and also willing to follow the EBA conditions about respecting human rights and labor rights in Cambodia?…. It’s in the government’s hands. And if they want to make the situation better, they need to follow the EU’s recommendation and reform,” she said.