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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Garment workers accuse bosses of violence

Garment workers accuse bosses of violence

EMPLOYEES at the Taiwan owned Ho Hing garment factory on Pochentong Boulevard in

Phnom Penh are protesting at what they say is summary unfair dismissal practices

and violent "discipline" meted out by their Chinese supervisors.

At a secret meeting in a garment workers dormitory on November 16, a group of 12

Ho Hing employees - who manufacture clothes for a range of multinational companies

including Gap, K-Mart, PLC Place and Union Bay - told the Post of physical abuse,

intimidation and a variety of other labor law violations suffered by the factory's

workforce.

They said few workers dare lodge complaints with the unions or with labor inspectors

from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Vocational Youth Training (MoSA),

because of threats of immediate dismissal.

Desperate for employment, they suffer in silence.

Ros Sopheak, 23, is one of the unlucky ones. On November 16 Sopheak was at his clothes

ironing station when a Taiwanese supervisor went into a0 rage when it was discovered

he was ironing the wrong-sized pants.

Although Sopheak says he tried to explain the mistake was not his, the supervisor

punched him twice in the stomach and fired him on the spot.

Such instances are apparently far from rare.

Speaking to the Post on condition of anonymity, a male worker said though he had

been employed at Ho Hing for only three months, he already had been beaten four times

by Taiwanese supervisors who were dissatisfied with his performance.

Other workers said though they themselves had not been struck, they had seen fellow

employees hit by the supervisors.

The women told the Post that female employees at Ho Hing fear both physical and sexual

assaults.

"Sometimes the Chinese inspectors slap the workers, or touch their buttocks,"

they said. "We know at least two women who were the victims of sexual abuse.

The Chinese gave money to security guards to lure the female workers to their office

for sex. The two girls have returned back to their homes in the countryside now.

"We only learned about this when the victims quit the factory. We told each

other 'You must protect yourself because nobody else will'."

The workers said that not only do they endure physical abuse, but they rarely get

paid the piece rates promised by Ho Hing's managers, who find reasons to dock the

workers' salaries.

"The Chinese force us to work overtime without fair pay, and even if it is a

national holiday the managers do not allow workers to have a day off," said

a female seamstress.

They also complained that water provided to them at the factory was unpalatable and

they are not allowed to bring water from outside.

The workers told the Post they want labor inspectors to conduct a serious investigation

into conditions at the factory.

"We need the Ministry of Social Affairs to help us, not just come to the factory

to take bribes from the managers without taking care of the us," said one.

Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia

(FTUWKC), said the illegal working conditions reported by the employees of Ho Hing

are not unusual in Cambodia's garment industry.

The day after Sopheak was punched and fired from Ho Hing, he lodged a complaint with

FTUWKC.

Vichea said in Sopheak's case the union will first send a written complaint to the

MoSA. "But every day [the union] hears criticism about the corruption at [MoSA],"

he said, adding that sources within factory offices often report to FTUWKC that they

witness money being handed to labor inspectors, or that they process expense forms

accounting for bribe money that must be paid to the Ministry to ignore labor law

problems.

If the labor inspectors take no action then the union might take the case to court.

But because of judicial corruption, workers are unlikely to get a fair hearing in

the courts, said Vichea.

Ho Hing's Taiwanese owner, Chung Yao Hung, told the Post that the factory has been

operating since 1997 with excellent relations between management and the workers.

Yao Hung said though he spends relatively little time in Cambodia, he had never received

complaints from the workers about conditions at the factory.

"I don't know about the beating of the workers," said Yao Hung. "I'm

sure no such things happens in my factory. If there was, I would fire any manager

who was involved - even if they were Chinese."

Yao Hung said such incidents would be harmful to the honor of the factory.

He said allegations of sexual harassment and assault were untrue and that he has

never received complaints from workers about problems with wages, drinking water

supply, or time allowed to use the toilets.

"We are trying to do our best to follow the labor law. We don't want a strike

to happen in our factory because it would impact on our business."

MoSA's Labor Inspection Department is responsible for monitoring working conditions

at the garment factories, which employ about 100,000 workers

Huot Chanthy, the Acting Director of MoSA's Labor Inspection Department, said the

Ministry has fined factories that have violated Cambodia's labor laws, but he could

not say exactly how many.

He told the Post any punitive action against the factories was confidential and the

Ministry could not disclose the names of the violators.

"We are not keeping the names of the factories who abuse the law secret, but

now is not the right time to name them," said Chanthy.

Responding to workers' and FTUWKC allegations of corruption in the Labor Inspection

Department, Chanthy said: "There are some people who like to accuse others of

committing corruption, but when they point one finger, they get three fingers pointed

back at them. The losers always say the winners committed corruption."

Vichea said the union tries to educate workers about their rights and how to unionize

their factories. But workers often come to the union for help only after they have

been fired and they do not take the initiative to organize because they fear they

will be sacked for causing labor unrest.

Vichea said he often returns to factories where union activists have tried to educate

the workers, "But they have ignored everything we told them and the problems

repeat themselves."

Only 13 of Cambodia's 178 garment factories are registered as having a workforce

represented by FTUWKC. Sixty-six factories have at least some FTUWKC members among

their employees.

Vichea said there are five trade unions recognized by the Ministry of Labor, but

the other four are either controlled by the factory owners, or by the CPP, and do

little to protect workers' rights.

Only FTUWKC voices criticism of the Government and factory owners, and lodges complaints

to the international community and workers' rights organizations, he said.

"Very few workers understand their rights. I think about 90 per cent have no

understanding of the labor code. But the union only has some power around Phnom Penh,

and workers at factories far away from Phnom Penh do not join unions. It is very

difficult."

Vichea estimates that no more than 40 per cent of Cambodia's garment factories comply

with Cambodia's wage laws - the worst violators being factories outside the Phnom

Penh area, which are rarely visited by labor inspectors.

At the minimum, factories are expected to pay $45 a month for a 48-hour work week.

There are also legal requirements for overtime pay.

Vichea said punitive action is rarely taken against factories that don't pay the

minimum wage "because the Ministry of Labor is very corrupt". It is less

expensive for the factories to bribe the labor inspectors to ignore their duty rather

than paying workers legal wages, he said.

He said strikes have erupted since the Water Festival because factories did not give

their workers time off.

Though he believes Cambodia's labor laws are now better than in the recent past,

Vichea said the laws are not being implemented by the responsible authorities.

Instead of voicing concern about the plight of Cambodians working under abusive conditions,

Government officials strongly criticize FTUWKC's activities because they fear labor

unrest will discourage would-be investors from coming to Cambodia, he said.

"But there are strikes everywhere in the world to improve labor conditions.

If Prime Minister Hun Sen cared about the workers then things would be better,"

said Vichea.

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