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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strikes spread into New Year

Strikes spread into New Year

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,"

Soeun said.

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

unrest.

"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

demonstration.

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

year.

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

during strikes.

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.

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