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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Striking workers shot

Striking workers shot

An injured protester is taken for medical treatment by police.

SECURITY guards at the June Textiles factory opened fire on protesting garment workers

on Thursday, June 22, wounding two young women.

At least three other workers were injured in related violence after a protest over

the minimum wage and working conditions went out of control.

Witnesses said security guards fired about 30 shots over the heads of the protesters

after they were pelted with bricks.

They said at one point one of the security guards lowered his gun and appeared to

be firing at a man fleeing the gunfire. It was at this time the women were wounded.

Their injuries were not believed to have been serious.

The incident marks a serious escalation in the ongoing conflict between factory owners

and garment workers who are fighting for a rise in the minimum salary from $40 to

$70.

The protest began at 8 am on Thursday morning when hundreds of workers assembled

in front of the gate to June Textiles Co Ltd and demanded that workers still inside

the factory come out to join the demonstration.

Buntheoun, a worker at the plant who was participating in the demonstration, said

factory security guards refused to let them through and then taunted the crowd.

"I saw one man, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, who was handling a pistol,"

he said. "He was yelling at us and turned up his T-shirt and beat his chest

at us. Then, we threw stones at them as we were trying to break through the gate."

The confrontation then grew heated, with both garment workers and security guards

throwing stones at each other.

Buntheoun said officials from the local authorities tried to calm people down, but

to no avail.

The guards then fired warning shots over the heads of the demonstrators. At least

two shots hit the guard house to the left of the gate. One worker estimated that

altogether 20 to 30 shots were fired.

As the crowd in front of the gate scattered or bent down, several witnesses said

one guard lowered his gun and aimed at a man running away. However, the bullets missed

and instead hit the two women standing further away from the gate. One, Doung Phalla,

was wounded in the arm and 23-year-old Chao Chanda fell unconscious when a bullet

grazed the back of her head. She was immediately taken to Kossamak hospital for treatment.

Sam Rainsy tries to negotiate his way into the factory

"I was not even in the protest; I was only standing in front of the house where

I live when the bullet hit me," Chanda said from her hospital bed.

Meanwhile the remaining demonstrators became agitated again when police escorted

a man out from inside the factory bleeding from a wound on his forehead. He was driven

away on a police motorbike.

The police said he was taken to a nearby clinic and treated, but shortly after, when

the Post visited the clinic, it was closed. However he was found late on Thursday

afternoon recovering at his house.

After the injured man's departure the crowd again began throwing rocks over the fence

and smashing factory windows.

A short time later opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrived at the scene. He demanded

to see the factory management, but was refused entry by police.

He demanded that the police arrest the security guard who had fired on the crowd,

but they refused.

"The police told me they could not arrest the guard who fired the shots,"

Rainsy said. "This is ridiculous, because they have his ID card. They know who

he is."

Shortly after the shooting, a factory ID card was circulating among the protesters.

Factory workers said it belonged to a security guard who started working at the factory

in January, but no-one could prove that he was also the person who shot into the

crowd.

Observers, who asked to remain anonymous, said the security guards at June Textiles

were recruited from F71, a special military bodyguard unit.

In addition to the security guards, June Textiles was also protected by some 150

military police.

June Textile Deputy General Manager Albert Kok said the factory management had become

worried after a protest the previous day, during which some 10,000 garment workers

had smashed the gates of the nearby Kong Hong garment factory and invaded its grounds.

"This is Cambodia, so you never know what can happen," Kok said. "We

were afraid the workers would start looting the factory and asked the local authorities

and the national military police for help. But we instructed everybody not to retaliate."

He said June Textiles will not resume working till the current situation is resolved.

Kok blamed Wednesday and Thursday's strikes on the Free Trade Union of the Workers

of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), saying the union organized the demonstrations.

However, FTUWCK denies any responsibility for the protest.

Sam Rainsy arrives to show support for the garment worker

"We definitely didn't organize this; we don't even have any members at June

Textiles," said FTUWKC adviser Katja Hemmerich.

Friday's strike is only the latest in a recent series of workers' protests starting

with three days of May Day demonstrations, when several thousand workers marched

through Phnom Penh on May 1, 2 and 3.

At the time, FTUWCK chairman Chea Vichea spelled out a list of nine demands aimed

at improving working conditions. Raising the minimum salary was the primary demand.

Vichea gave the government till June 18 to open up discussion on these demands.

On Tuesday, June 20, union representatives, factory owners and government officials

met to discuss the minimum salary. The workers were offered an increase of five to

seven percent, which for many would constitute a rise of $2. However, before any

compromise could be reached, the meeting was broken up when the Cambodian Federation

of Independent Trade Unions - much to the surprise of other union representatives

- asked for more time to consider their position.

This seems to have upset the workers in the factories. Encouraged by their successful

May Day marches, they started a protest on Wednesday morning. The demonstration snowballed

into a strike involving up to 10,000 workers and 19 factories.

On Thursday, the protest expanded to involve another 10 factories.

There was no indication that June Textiles had been a premeditated target of the

protesters.

The Singaporean-owned factory has manufactured clothes for the Gap and Fruit of the

Loom. It's working conditions are considered good compared to other large garment

factories in Phnom Penh.

Hemmerich said that the protest might have been an expression of a much greater frustration

among the garment workers.

"I think the conflict over the minimum salary is only the catalyst that triggered

much bigger outrage," she said. "We hear more and more concerns coming

from the factory level - about union representatives being fired, overwork, agreements

being violated, general working conditions, etc."

"This current conflict can only be solved if the workers are given some kind

of tangible improvement now. And then it will still be necessary to sit down and

talk about all these other concerns to make sure the outrage won't erupt again."

The Secretary General of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, Roger

Tan, is not optimistic about the future for the garment industry.

"This labor unrest creates a huge problem for management," he said. "Maybe

that's what the protesters were trying to do. There are already long delays in production.

If life ever goes back to a semblance of normality, the workers will have to work

even more overtime to catch up. It can only get worse."

Gunshot victim Chao Chanda is helped away

At Post press time, the workers had decided to continue the strike on Friday morning.

FTUWCK, fearing a lawsuit against them for instigating violence, emphasized again

that the protest is organized by the workers themselves and not by the union.

"This is out of our hands," said Hemmerich. "We can't control it anymore.

But if the workers want to strike, then we support them.

"However, we are doing our utmost to avoid any more violence and have encouraged

everybody to stay calm - even if they are provoked."

Garment manufacturing is Cambodia's biggest export industry, with 178 factories employing

more than 100,000 workers.

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