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Allegations of rioting, vandalism at now shuttered factory

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Workers mill about in front of the First & Main factory after learning it had been closed. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Two very different pictures of what occurred at the First & Main plush-toy factory in Phnom Penh on Monday emerged yesterday as workers alleged they had lost their jobs and the founder of the company spoke of rioting and vandalism sending him to ruin.

According to their representative Mech Mom, the factory's 357 workers were told to take a two-week paid break on August 26, amid rumours the company was on the verge of collapse.

“But when we came back to the factory on Monday to receive our wage – as promised – we found it closed,” she said yesterday.

Gates were locked at the Sen Sok district factory and workers’ attempts to contact managers – scheduled to have been there – were unsuccessful, Mom added.

US-based First & Main president and founder Brad Holes, however, said a female representative he sent to negotiate with the workers had been prevented from leaving the factory after a number of people broke into the building and trashed teddy-bear manufacturing equipment.

“This representative was there to settle a deal, but these drunk men whipped up the crowd in a way that made her fear for her life. It should never have happened,” he said, adding he did not know if the perpetrators were employees. “We don’t know the extent of the damage – because they trashed the surveillance equipment as well.”

Speaking from Illinois, Holes said factory management had been on the verge of offering the workers half of what they were owed in wages and had intended to provide the other half in two weeks if First & Main secured a deal that was being negotiated with a buyer.

That deal had since come through, Holes claimed, but added that the damage may have already been done.

“We had hoped the closure would be temporary. However, the building has been stormed. This situation has jeopardised the future of the factory,” he said.

As of last night, he had not called police about the incident and could not say for sure whether the factory would close for good.

Mom said workers were also uncertain whether the closure was permanent or temporary, and had expected confirmation when they arrived at the factory on Monday.

“We need the factory or the relevant institutes to pay us our salary for August, our seniority bonuses and other benefits,” she said, adding that many of the workers lived month to month.

Brad and Nancy Holes established First & Main in the US in 1994 and expanded to Cambodia “as a hedge to rising prices in China and so they would have a base of operations to support orphan organisations there”.

“I’ve invested my life savings,” Holes said yesterday. “We have no money after this.”

Mom said management had been concerned recently when a US buyer had rejected 40,000 damaged teddy bears.

Representatives of the workers also visited the American Center for International Labor Solidarity yesterday to seek assistance.

ACILS country director Dave Welsh said it appeared First & Main had simply skipped town without paying wages.

“There were locks and chains on the gates [on Monday]. There were no owners or managers or even line managers there. They’re not exactly positive signs,” he said. “They’ve left workers in the lurch.”

The factory had been operating in Phnom Penh for about five years, Welsh said. If it had closed, management owed some workers the equivalent in seniority bonuses.

Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said he believed the company was in a position to pay the workers their wages.

“What I don’t know is whether the factory will continue operations,” Loo said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com
Mom Kunthear at kunthear.mom@phnompenhpost.com

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