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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Union: split was coerced

Union: split was coerced

O ne day after a garment workers union won higher wages, shorter hours, paid sick

leave and other benefits in a labor showdown, the union's landlords and two unarmed

police officers pressured some members to withdraw from the union and form another

one, according to union officials.

The landlords and police showed up at the offices of the Sam Rainsy-supported Free

Trade Union of Khmer Workers on Dec 22, making threats and promising CPP support

for the new union, said Ker Sam Oeun, the union's advisor.

"They threatened us to change the name of the union because they don't want

us to be with [Rainsy's] Khmer National Party," said Om Navy, the union's vice


The three landlords told the unionists to form a new organization called the "Free

Trade Union of Royal Cambodia" and told them Military Police Commander Neth

Savoeun and Chief of National Police Hok Lundy would support the new organization,

Navy said.

Four of the union's 17 officers took $100 each from the police officers from the

Phnom Penh Municipality Authority, and were urging other workers to abandon the original

union, Sam Oeun said.

Savoeun and a spokesman for Lundy both said they knew nothing of any pressure

on the union. "It is a pretext of someone," said Lundy's assistant.

"If there is any pressure [on workers] they can complain to me," Savoeun


The two-week-old original union - the first to be formed in Cambodia, by workers

at the Cambodia Garment Ltd. - is supported by Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party. The union

occupies a house near the factory, one of Cambodia's largest.

Navy said the three landlords said that if the workers refused to form the new union,

"they [workers] have to be responsible for themselves if anything happens."

She said one of the four union members who agreed to split off - Treasurer Sophat

Toma - told her that the landlords promised police support and more pay in exchange

for forming the new union.

The promises included an added $3 to the $37-a-month wages the workers won from the

garment factory, as well as a new office, a vehicle and a handphone for the union,

Navy said.

The union's president, Ou Mary, said she would not go to the new union. "I cannot

[betray] my conscience," she said. "I do this for the workers. The company

owner agreed to all our demands."

The visit of the landlords and police officers came just a day after the union won

higher wages and better working conditions from the factory in a protest that included

a strike and a march by 3,000 workers to the National Assembly, which is currently

considering a labor law.

The six-day strike brought a call from the King for negotiations. Union and factory

officials met over the weekend. Rainsy announced the settlement during a lunch break

on Dec. 21 and the workers returned to their jobs the next day.

The agreement raised workers' pay from $35 to $37 per month; reduced the workweek

from up to 72 to 47 hours; provided $2 bonuses for workers who miss no more than

two days a month; guaranteed security for the night shift; provided a free health

clinic, 30 days' sick leave with pay and three months of maternity leave at half

pay; and promised respect for workers' rights.

Cambodia Garments Ltd also recognized the union as a representative of the workers

and agreed not to penalize workers or union leaders who participated in the strike.

The factory agreed to stop requiring overtime work and to encourage it instead with

extra pay of 1,000 to 2,000 riels for four hours.

The workers walked off the job on Dec 17, with security guards firing shots in the

air. On Dec 19, 3,000 workers, most of them women, walked from the factory to the

National Assembly and the Royal Palace to demand changes.

Rainsy called the settlement "a big achievement" and said the factory management

apologized for physical abuses and promised there would be no future violations.

But the Ministry of the Interior released a statement saying the union had not been

legally formed, and Rainsy had not informed authorities about the demonstration.

The statement said demonstration leaders who fail to follow such requirements in

the future would be held responsible if any demonstrators were killed.

Meanwhile, a second group of disgruntled garment workers marched on the National

Assembly Dec 24.

The demonstrators - workers from Genon Cambodia Manufacturing, and again led by Sam

Rainsy - demanded increased pay, decreased working hours and sick leave.

The labor unrest prompted some officials to complain about possible negative effects

on investment.

"Investors are afraid of demonstrations. They came to express their concern

about this," said a Ministry of Industry official, who asked not to be identified.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association, said the labor problems

damaged the country's economy.

"It has a very big bad impact and it is very damaging when Cambodia just starts

to produce something to export", Sou Ieng said.

Sou Ieng said the next time workers staged such a demonstration without informing

the company management, they will be fired.



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