LABOR unrest turned nasty in the new year with demonstrations resulting in injuries
and arrests and at least one garment manufacturer threatening to relocate elsewhere
in the region.
Five garment factories have experienced walk-outs and demonstrations involving demands
for better pay and conditions since Khmer Nation Party (KNP) leader Sam Rainsy helped
set up the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) just over
four weeks ago.
Security guards fired shots into the air outside the Tack Fat garment factory Jan
9 as Rainsy urged workers to reject a compromise package offered by management.
The incident followed claims by Rainsy that he, KNP Secretary General Khieu Rada
and other party officials had been punched and manhandled by police.
A Jan 4 demonstration - involving workers from the Tack Fat garment factory - saw
authorities harden their stance against protestors when a crowd marching on the National
Assembly was broken up with water cannons.
The incident began when about 400 mostly female workers assembled outside the Tack
Fat factory in the Phnom Penh suburb of Chak Angrai.
As worker representatives and factory management negotiated, demonstrators headed
for the National Assembly only to be confronted by an estimated 100 armed riot police
and ten fire engines.
As the demonstrtors moved past the Ministry of Agriculture, the fire engines opened
up their water hoses to disperse the crowd.
At least nine workers - including five women - were injured in the fracas, while
four others were arrested.
One woman was wounded in the head after being knocked to the ground by a high powered
jet of water. Another suffered a cut and bruising to the head after a policeman hit
her with a rifle butt.
Yem Sarin, a 29 year-old male worker, suffered a swolen lip allegedly suffered when
police punched and wrestled with him as he tried to break through their lines.
"A policeman punched me... if they are protecting the interests of Khmers, they
should not have done this. We are being exploited by [foreign investors], but now
our brothers are trying to suppress us," Sarin said.
The water cannons and strong-arm police tactics were enough to intimidate some of
the demonstrators - only 300 of the original number continued to the Independence
Monument where they vented their anger by denouncing police.
"The police are supposed to protect the people, but they have now abused the
workers," one striker shouted through a bullhorn.
However, Mok Chito - Phnom Penh Municipality Criminal Police Chief - blamed Rainsy
for provoking the confrontation.
He said negotiators were poised to report to the demonstrators when Rainsy urged
them to march.
"Everything has been spoiled because of that bald headed man," he said
in reference to Rainsy's cropped hair, the legacy of a recent stint in a monastry.
"What he is doing is illegal and he could be arrested, but we excuse him because
what the workers are demanding is reasonable because they have been made to suffer...
by their managers, " Chito said.
The demonstration eventually broke up after a company representative announced that
union advisors and translators would be allowed to accompany workers representatives
at a meeting later that afternoon.
Union officials claimed management later reniged on the agreement to hold the meeting.
On Jan 6 Rainsy then urged workers to make representations to the King and First
Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh.
Chea Soeun, an advisor to the Tack Fat factory, said some of the workers were hired
by the KNP to stir up trouble.
The day before the demonstration, he said, some "crooked workers" - who
had earlier refused to work - stoned the factory roof.
"The rocks fell on the roof and made sounds like a bomb explosion. The workers
working inside were panicked and ran outside. That's how the problems spread,"
Sok Phal - director of the Information Department at the Ministry of Interior - said
criminal police were preparing to quell any further unrest.
"If they stone the factory again, destroy property or injure anyone, we will
arrest them and bring them to the court", he said after the demonstration.
Meanwhile, at least one garment manufacturer has expressed concern about the labor
"This morning my boss called from Hong Kong and he said if [it] continued like
this, it will be impossible to continue investing. He wants to stop expanding the
factory and turn his investment to Vetnam or Laos," Chea Soeun said during the
Suy Sem, Minister of Social Affairs, Labor and Veteran's Affairs, said: "Doing
such things will destroy investment [and] destroy the economy."
But Kem Sokha, chairman of the National Assembly's Commission on Human Rights and
Reception of Complaints disagreed.
"It is really a threat to those who do business illegally, don't respect the
law, or workers' rights," Sokha said Jan 3.
In a Dec 30 report to the King , co-Prime Ministers Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen
said in order to defend the national interest - and the interests of both investors
and workers - the government will continue to prevent illegal demonstrations "incited
by politicians who are against the government."
But in a royal audience Tuesday FTUWKC president Ou Mary said King Sihanouk urged
government and Rainsy to jointly inspect conditions at the Tack Fat factory to monitor
alleged human rights abuses.
National Assembly member Kann Man said workers had legitimate complaints, but they
were being stirred up by ambitious politicians.
"Before, the workers were stupid. They were used like slaves but now they have
woken up to demand their rights," Man said on Jan 3.
He said without them [the Rainsy organised union] the government would not have called
on the factories to examine pay and working conditions.
"They never remember that they [workers] have suffered from hardship for years.
No one saw them," he said.
"I've been to many factories and I saw the hardship. I reported to the boss
once, twice, ten times but it was useless."
Man said workers could do nothing but cry - cry with bloody tears. When they got
off their seats, their seat number was recorded and their wages docked.
"When they got sick, they daren't ask for leave. If they wanted a husband, they
[the factory management] didn't let them get married," Man said.
An agreement between the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veteran's Affairs,
the Ministry of Industry and 36 garment companies was reached on December 26 last
The agreement increased worker's salaries to a $40 minimum per month effective as
of January 1.
But as of press time workers allege that the Tack Fat and other companies have yet
to implement the agreement.
The FTUWKC has now appealed for an international embargo on products produced at
Tack Fat and for donations from "human rights conscious individuals and organisations"
to tide over striking workers who say they face starvation when salaries are withheld
In a related event, two female workers - Chum Rany, 20, and So May, 28 - lodged complaints
with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Jan 2 against Gennon (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing
Ltd for having strip-searched them in public.
The complaint also alleges the company fired them when they protested the strip-search
and blamed them for inciting others to refuse to work overtime.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly is expected to pass a new labor law later this month
so that the country can take advantage of Most Favoured Nation Trading Status with
the United States.
A recent report by the National Assembly's Commission on Human Rights and Reception
of Complaints charged that the most serious abuses of workers among the 36 garment
factories occur at Cambodia Garments, City New Garments, Integrity Apparel, Mithuna
and Kong Hong.
The FTUWKC has plans to broaden it's membership base, with existing members already
conducting a recruitment campaign.