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An SL Garment Factory protest is halted by military police on Street 371 in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district
An SL Garment Factory protest is halted by military police on Street 371 in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district in September. Heng Chivoan

SL to reinstate fired unionists

The chief executive of SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) yesterday said the factory has agreed to reinstate 19 dismissed union leaders and activists, a sticking point which could end a strike that has lasted more than three months.

Hours after the Ministry of Labour announced the garment factory had agreed to rehire the workers, SL chief executive Wong Hon Ming confirmed by phone that the employees in question would be allowed to return to work.

The move came three days after SL rejected a government order – given the same week a strike involving workers in Meanchey district left one woman dead – to rehire the workers.

“The ball is now in the court of the union,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia.

Labour Ministry secretary of state Sat Sakmoth told a Post reporter earlier in the day that SL had retracted its agreement to allow the 19 workers back, but his account could not be confirmed.

Ek Sopheakdey, secretary general of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), which represents a large majority of SL’s workforce, last night said he was aware of the Labour Ministry’s announcement, but remained sceptical that SL would actually allow the 19 workers back.

“I don’t yet believe it 100 per cent,” Sopheakdey said last night. “But if they agree, they have to sign a contract and specify a date when [the 19] workers can return.”

Reached by phone yesterday, SL’s general manager, who declined to give his name, said the government order to reinstate the workers – an order approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen – played a role in SL’s reversal. SL officials hope the compromise ends the strike.

“If it’s ordered by the government, I guess we need to follow,” he said. “I think everything is already finished.”

SL workers initially walked off the job on August 12, demanding the dismissal of shareholder Meas Sotha, who hired military police to stand guard inside the factory. C.CAWDU members called the move an intimidation tactic, meant to flush the union out of SL.

Since the strike began, officials from the Labour Ministry, the Ministry of Social Affairs and City Hall have all mediated several fruitless talks between union and factory leaders.

The strike turned deadly on November 12, when 49-year-old food vendor Eng Sokhom died from a gunshot wound to the chest after police opened fire on hundreds of SL demonstrators. At least nine others suffered gunshot wounds.

Two teens – aged 14 and 17 – are the only two people who remain in custody in connection with the riots, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, which is providing them with pro bono legal representation. Phnom Penh Municipal Court is now processing a bail request.

Although not speaking on C.CAWDU’s behalf, Dave Welsh, country director of labour rights group Solidarity Center, said the union will likely have to look at where SL now stands on other demands it has made before ending the strike. However, he added, the move will likely go a long way toward ending the stalemate.

“It’s huge, enormous,” said Welsh, who noted the 19 workers in question include all C.CAWDU leadership within the factory. “The reinstatement of the unions was really non-negotiable.”

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