FOR almost one week, 26-year-old Poeu Bunthoeun didn't dare spend the night in the
house he shares with a group of other garment workers in the Russei Keo district
in Phnom Penh.
He had been told police would come after dark and arrest him or that some gangsters
would try to kill him.
Mach Chanthorn, 21, has also been scared. The village chief and the Russei Keo district
police showed up one night around 11pm at the house she shares with her uncle. They
took a photograph of her but refused to say what it was for - just that she would
find out later.
Bunthoeun and Chanthorn both work in the garment industry and are active union representatives
at their respective factories. They participated in the massive almost week-long
strike late last month, when thousands of garment workers took their demand for an
increase of the minimum salary to the streets.
On Thursday, June 22, the demonstrations turned violent, when factory security guards
opened fire against brick-throwing protesters. At least five people were injured,
two of them by bullets.
Like many other union representatives and workers' rights activists, Bunthoeun and
Chanthorn have been very worried about their personal security since then.
On June 27, the first day the workers were back at work, security guards and police
went looking for Bunthoeun at the PCCS Ltd factory where he works maintaining machinery.
They wanted to arrest him and another union representative, but factory workers surrounded
Bunthoeun and his colleague and threatened to leave their jobs if they were not left
Later a sympathetic police officer told Bunthoeun that the Russei Keo police had
collected photos of him and a lot of other activists. He also received warnings that
some people were out to get him. Since then he has slept in a different place every
"I was very scared. They could not harm me as long as I was at the factory during
the day, because all the other workers would protect me. But I was afraid that they
would try to 'shut me up' during the night," he said.
Only on Tuesday, July 4, did he feel safe enough to spend the night at home.
Chanthorn also had a run-in with the Russei Keo police on June 27. They showed up
on her doorstep, took a photo of her and ordered her to come to a meeting at the
commune office next morning. Chanthorn thought it better not to go.
At the same time, Chanthorn felt the pressure on her rising at the Gennon Cambodia
Garments factory where she used to work on the factory floor as a quality controller.
Suddenly she was transferred to do office work away from most of the colleagues whose
rights she tried to defend.
"Then the management banned me from talking to the other workers. They said
they would fire me if I spoke to them. Now they try to make me quit my job. I sit
alone in the office and get blamed for a lot of things all the time," says Chanthorn.
But despite the pressure and the intimidation, neither she nor Bunthoeun has any
intentions of quitting their activist work.
"My family wants me to stop being an activist, but my conscience tells me that
I have to continue. I cannot just sit there in the office and watch the difficulties
of the other workers," says Chanthorn.
Bunthoeun says he will continue because the other workers support him strongly despite
financial inducements to abandon them.
"They [managment] invited me out for dinner and karaoke singing. They even offered
me money. But every time I turned down the offers. My conscience will not allow me
to do things like that," said Bunthoeun.
He and Chanthorn agreed that the workers are very likely to go on strike again. On
July 13 the Labor Action Committee that consists of union representatives, manufacturers
and government officials, will meet to discuss the workers' primary demand which
is an increase of the $40 minimum salary.
They also want a reduction of the working week from 48 to 44 hours and the right
to stay at home on public holidays.
For now, the minimum salary remains the single most important issue, and if the Labor
Action Committee meeting doesn't reach a satisfactory conclusion, Bunthoeun and Chanthorn
predict more industrial trouble.
"They will probably go on strike again if they are not satisfied," said