LGBTIQ Employment Discrimination in Cambodia

Rainbow glitter.

Last week the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, or CCHR, issued a report about employment discrimination against LGBTIQ individuals in the country. The report examined international standards and treaties, Cambodian legislation, and individual experiences of discrimination within the context of promoting equality amongst all individuals regardless of their sexuality, gender identity, or sexual characteristics. This blog post will review some of the findings from this report.

To begin, the CCHR report reviewed international standards based on international human rights law and the International Labour Organization. Noticeable in this analysis was a lack of international regulation on discrimination by sexual orientation. There is a lot of inclusive language, “rights for all” and such, but specific protections were limited. It is a thin foundation upon which the CCHR bases its arguments for inclusive policies in the Kingdom. Not that this is the fault of the CCHR, but the report does not make clear whether this lack is in the international regulations themselves, or simply in the international regulations to which Cambodia is a signatory. This failure weakens the argument that international standards should apply when those very standards seem deficient in protections for LGBTIQ individuals.

Despite this failure of the report, it is painfully obvious that Cambodia does not provide any legal protections for the LGBTIQ community against employment discrimination. There is a provision in the Constitution of the Kingdom against discrimination of several enumerated categories, but not for LGBTIQ individuals. Other relevant laws such as the Labor Law, the Labor Union Law, and the Criminal Code all fail to provide protections for LGBTIQ individuals in hiring and labor situations. In addition, policy plans that address equality and discrimination in the development of employment opportunities fail to address the concerns of LGBTIQ individuals. Only one, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, allows that LGBT individuals are important when considering work status. There is no concrete policy to enforce non-discrimination for this class.

Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, has reportedly supported non-discrimination against LGBTIQ individuals. “Prime Minister Hun Sen has sent a message through me [Keo Remy] to inform the members of the LGBTIQ community at this meeting that the government stands against all discrimination against LGBTIQ people”, he reportedly added: “We clearly state that the Cambodian government stands against discrimination.” This apparent support from high officials has yet to translate into effective, or even existing, legislation to counter actual discrimination against LGBTIQ individuals.

The report is based on two parts, a desk study that examined the legislation and international frameworks governing employment discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and field interviews of 118 LGBTQ people in Cambodia. Nearly fifty of these interviews were with trans women and this large portion of the sample group obviously skews the results towards a highly visible and traditionally victimized category. That said, the interviews provided some hope that things are improving for LGBTQ individuals in Cambodian employment practices.

Over 20% of respondents reported having been rejected for job consideration because of their LGBTQ status. Sixty-five percent of those reported that this happened multiple times. An equal number stated that they did not report this discrimination as they had “no hope of receiving support.” Transwoman Nita from Benteay Meanchey Province said, “I especially did not report it to the police, because they didn’t like me. I was very sad.” A quarter of those interviewed said they had hidden any revelatory characteristics of their LGBTQ status in job interviews. Many of the trans individuals interviewed stated that one reason they were discriminated against was the fact that their ID cards identified them as different from their dress or appearance. Discrimination across sectors was not uniform. Some trans individuals were able to be out in their workplace, garment factories or schools, while some were not. Discrimination seemed more dependent on individual employers than related to sector.

Thirty-six percent of those interviewed reported harassment or bullying in their workplace as a result of their LGBTQ status. The majority of this harassment came in the form of jokes and teasing and verbal insults. Nearly a quarter of respondents received physical threats or harassment while 15% were sexually assaulted. This harassment came primarily from the public and from colleagues more frequently than from employers. Nearly two-thirds of those who experienced harassment refused to report it, feeling a lack of support, discomfort in reporting, or lack of knowledge of who to report it to.

Over half of those interviewed reported depression or other emotional problems as a result of work-based discrimination. “Sadly, I want to end my life because I am harassed by people on a daily basis,” said Bunthan, a gay man from Preah Sihanouk. “It is hard to find a job, that is why I sell cake, but I face insults everyday.” Discrimination also affected LGBTQ individuals through economic disparities. As they face difficulties in finding and keeping work, they are often impacted by lower-paying jobs that are less desirable for their abilities and training.

Ninety-two percent of those interviewed believe that job opportunities for LGBTQ individuals are not equal to those provided for non-LGBTQ individuals. This is pronounced even more for trans people seeking employment in the Kingdom. Furthermore, the industry sectors open to LGBTQ people are limited by both access to education and training and discrimination as to their abilities. Sometimes this is self-imposed as LGBTQ individuals fear discrimination and rejection from pursuing jobs in sectors outside those traditionally seen as accepting LGBTQ people.

The report concludes that the legal and societal situation in Cambodia is discriminatory towards LGBTIQ people. And that “LGBTIQ Cambodians have the same capacity to learn skills and the same determination and willingness to work as all people.” To allow and enable them to access the same employment opportunities as other people would not only improve their lives but contribute to the economy of the Kingdom. The CCHR recommends policy and legislative actions by the government of the Kingdom to not only prevent employment discrimination based on LGBTIQ characteristics but to educate society as to the benefits of inclusion.

“We have the same abilities to work as everyone else, so we should not be discriminated against, we should be given equal opportunities” Phearo, transwoman, Siem Reap.

While the report is a nice thought, it falls short of usefulness in many respects. Not only is the legislative review less than stellar, and the research biased towards trans men and women, but the recommendations resound like sound bites from very liberal western European countries. There seems to be little connection between those who prepared the report and the actual situation on the ground. Realistic recommendations for actual benefit seem limited to obvious solutions of legislative consultation and amendment and educational reform. These are nice, but as Cambodia has proven time and again, NGOs can spout reports while little actually happens on the part of the Kingdom’s government.

I don’t know the answers, but it seems to me that there should be something concrete, something specific and real, that comes from an effort such as this. It is a failing of many NGOs in the region, and especially in Cambodia, that ideal western—not even moderate western—beliefs form the basis against which Cambodia is compared. This is evident in this report. And while I appreciate the CCHR for its efforts to improve the lives of the LGBTIQ individuals who are affected by employment discrimination in Cambodia, more is needed.

To download the full report, follow the link here:

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