Empowering trade union leaders: Yang Sophorn’s journey

12 Dec 2023

“Protecting and empowering our fellow workers doesn’t just transform their working conditions; it paves the way for broader societal and systemic changes within the industry.” – Ms. Yang Sophorn.

Figure 1.1: Ms. Yang Sophorn presented during the Trade Union Leadership Programme Training 

In Phnom Penh Cambodia, Trade unions play a vital role in advocating for workers’ rights and improving labour conditions. Behind these efforts are dedicated leaders like Yang Sophorn, a former factory worker who has been at the forefront of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) since its inception in 2011.  Sophorn met with Better Factories Cambodia in a recent interview, to share her journeys of professional and personal growth. Sophorn’s latest contact with BFC was the “Trade Union Leadership Training” programme.  Sophorn, 43, who joined the garment industry as a worker in 1993, is now a prominent leader of CATU. Her journey towards union leadership began when she transitioned from a worker to a union leader in 2000; she became a member of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) to champion workers’ rights. When asked about her motivation for becoming a union leader, Sophorn spoke passionately about her desire to help others. She had witnessed the hardships faced by workers and recognized that joining a union was one way to make a difference.

Sophorn also shared how the  six month Trade Union Leadership Training programme  helped her develop a deeper understanding of her own leadership style and improve her relationships with colleagues.

One of the significant takeaways from the programme for Sophorn was the focus on emotional intelligence and how to strategize and prioritize tasks, something she had struggled with before. She has faced her share of challenges as a union leader, including moderating disputes among members. For a period, the immense pressure of being a union leader also resulted in distance with her family. Yet over time, with her newfound skills and knowledge, Sophorn said “I am more confident in sharing my feelings, I am better at engaging and supporting both my union members and family members.” Her family has come to better understand her position and is now more supportive of her professional endeavours.

Reflecting on her growth as a trade union leader, Sophorn emphasized the importance of focusing on results and working from the heart – not merely for personal gain – but for the improvement of workers’ lives.

Trade Union Leaders receiving their certificate for the completion of the Trade Union Leadership Training Program

The Trade Union Leadership Training programme was completed by 22 trade union leaders across Cambodia. The vision of the programme is to equip trade union leaders with the skills and knowledge to represent workers effectively. By focusing on professional leadership skills, teamwork, collaboration, and technical capabilities, BFC aims to nurture leaders who can drive positive change, advocate for workers, and participate actively in industry consultations and negotiations. BFC will continue to provide ongoing support for Cambodian union leaders and will work closely with them on their leadership journeys, including through personalized coaching sessions due to take place in 2024.

Sophorn’s journey serves as a testament to the power of capacity building, especially on leadership skills for trade union leaders. It showcases how dedicated individuals like Sophorn can transform not only themselves but also the organizations they lead, helping to ensure the interests of workers are protected and furthered.

“Being a leader means making decisions that affect a lot of people. Sometimes a leader gets criticism or feedback from members, but I have to be open to it. This was a change from within. It wasn’t a concept forced on me in the lessons. It was a realization I came to gradually when I reflected on the training.”

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