Flouting a government order, representatives of SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd yesterday refused to rehire 19 union representatives and activists during a meeting with the Ministry of Labour.
Rehiring the 19 has been the key sticking point in ending the three-month-old strike, which erupted into violence two weeks ago today in an incident that left an uninvolved bystander killed by a police bullet.
The order to rehire the workers – all active members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) – came just days after the shooting.
“The employers at SL strongly refused to accept the 19 workers back,” said Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Labour Ministry who attended the four-hour meeting. “I tried my best to explain to them that we will send the case to court now because of their decision.”
Joseph Kee Leung Lee, director of SL International Holdings, declined to comment after the meeting last night, telling a Post reporter that he did not attend the meeting and had not spoken with anyone present. SL’s general manager could not be reached last night. News of SL’s refusal to rehire the workers came as no surprise to C.CAWDU vice president Kong Athit.
“That’s not a surprise,” he said yesterday. “C.CAWDU will keep pushing the government, and … buyers and to come to negotiate to settle this.”
If SL, which supplies to Gap Inc and H&M, does not rehire the workers, the strike will continue, Athit said. If they decide to close the factory, they still must compensate the workers, according to the labour law’s stipulations.
Two weeks ago, riot police fired live ammunition into a crowd of hundreds of SL protesters, killing 49-year-old street vendor Eng Sokhom and leaving nine hospitalised with gunshot wounds.
Nearly 40 people were arrested at that time, but only two teens – ages 14 and 17– remain in custody. Attorneys from the Community Legal Education Center, which is providing them with pro-bono legal representation, yesterday filed a request for bail with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Moen Tola, who heads the NGO’s labour program, said.
The riot occurred during an attempt by strikers and their supporters to march from the SL1 factory in Meanchey district to the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At that time, workers demanded the factory oust Meas Sotha, the SL shareholder who hired armed military police to stand guard inside the factory. The act, C.CAWDU representatives argued, was a move to intimidate unionised workers.
Since the strike began, officials from the labour ministry and Phnom Penh City Hall have facilitated several fruitless negotiation sessions between SL management and C.CAWDU.
While not surprised by SL’s decision to face court rather than hire back the workers, David Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS, said the move makes little sense from a business perspective.
“It’s hard to visualise how this will end if [SL] refuses to budge,” Welsh said. “It’s hard to imagine brands would further invest in a company with so many problems.”