Why are Cambodian Women Underrepresented in Labor Unions?

By Kristy Ward

In 2013 hundreds of thousands of garment sector workers took to the street to protest about minimum wages in one of the world’s most durable authoritarian regimes – Cambodia. The minimum wage protest was not an isolated event. In the years prior to 2013 the number of labor strikes increased dramatically. Women-led strikes also continued even after the military violently cracked down on workers. Most protestors were women, who also accounted for 85 percent of the garment sector workforce. By 2022 women are increasingly found in high numbers the construction sector, at 40 percent of the workforce. Yet few labor unions – member organizations that represent workers on workplace issues – are headed by women or have women in their top leadership. 

Culture and the disproportionate burden of care work are argued to shape women’s opportunities in political spaces, including unions. Yet many women do challenge cultural norms, as evidenced by their willingness to digress cultural expectations of virtuous and proper women through labor protest. In my recent article in Gender & Society, I argue that to understand why women are systematically excluded from unions it is necessary to look beyond marginalization within institutional silos – work, unions and family. I argue that narratives and practices of gendered subordination across each institution are deeply interrelated. The outcomes of this marginalization across these institutions are also inconsistent and unexpected, thus undermining any gains made. Women who seek to influence union structures are sidelined, while the deeply political issues that affect them are reframed as questions of wages or contracts or of personal and family matters.

Male federation and plant-level union leaders told women workers that they needed coaching – to acquire new skills and knowledge – before they could take up a position of responsibility within union ranks. Women did not participate in union leadership, they said, because they were uneducated and lacking in experience. Women needed to learn from other leaders (who were male) so that they could acquire the necessary knowledge to perform in these roles. This was also true of paid positions in the federation where men were engaged in public facing and decision making roles, while women were employed in administration, mid-level finance, worker engagement and cleaning roles.

In both the construction and garment sectors women were paid less than men for the same work. As Thida, a female construction worker, told me, “They believe that in construction you have to be strong to do the work and, because women are not as strong, they get paid less. Why do we get paid differently when we do the same work? It’s unfair.” Women also described how employers and supervisors used violence to control their behaviour. Unions then justified women’s exclusion from union leadership roles on the grounds of harassment at work. When I asked why there were no women in leadership positions, Rottanak and Ros, both male leaders of factory-level garment unions, described how women unionists were repeatedly harassed by factory management and by pro-government unionists, making them unsuitable, in their eyes, for union duties.

A final point of intersection between work and gender regimes is precarious employment. Workers explained that fixed-duration contracts, ranging from two to six months, were used by factory management to fire workers who joined unions or did not work hard enough to meet production targets. Many women, however, said that they preferred such arrangements because it gave them additional, and much-needed, income. Yet according to male union leaders women lacked the education and knowledge to understand the implications of being employed on a fixed-duration contract. For this reason, they explained, women were ill-suited to become workplace-level union officials.

Care demands also shaped union leaders’ perceptions of where women belonged in the union hierarchy. Unionists from both sectors unanimously perceived that when women took up paid and elected union positions, it was difficult for them to fulfill their household responsibilities. These responsibilities, moreover, were repeatedly identified by senior union leaders as a barrier to women’s union activism, especially as union organizing activities were often conducted after work and on the weekends when children are not at school. Narratives regarding women’s safety and mobility – travelling to the province for worker consultations – were also used to demonstrate women’s lack of suitability for union work.

Women have begun to make headway within Cambodia’s garment and construction unions in the past decade. More women have taken up leadership roles in the last five years – particularly at the enterprise level – and matters such as maternity leave are now commonplace union issues. Several unions have amended their by-laws to allocate quotas for women in leadership roles or established women’s committees. On paper, at least, Cambodian union federations have stepped up their gender focus, often with support from international labor movement donors. One might expect that if there are gains for women in unions, there must also be gains in the workplace or in the family. Similarly, constraining norms that operate in the family would prevent political advancement in unions. Counterintuitively, my research shows the opposite. Women are punished for gains in one regime by an interlocking regime. For example, women’s activism in unions to defend labor rights may enhance their confidence and assertiveness within the union, yet they are penalized for these very same behaviors by workplaces and family members.

These gender regime dynamics have substantive effects. Women’s adverse incorporation in unions means that the issues that matter most to them as workers, such as gendered workplace violence and harassment, are often ignored by union representatives, employers and the government. Moreover, any gains within political spaces that advance women’s bargaining power are eroded by narratives and practices in another regime, such as the family, to reinforce a hierarchical gender order.

Kristy Ward is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on labor movements in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on their gendered and political dimensions.