Last week an impromptu walkout sparked the worst factory worker unrest this year in Cambodia. And some say this is a case where worker representation could have actually prevented industrial action
On Wednesday, December 16, workers began streaming out of the imposing Kingmaker footwear factory in Svay Rieng province’s border town of Bavet.
“First, many left, but there were still some inside the factory. Then the factory ordered the rest of us out,” said Chan Saban, a slight 29-year-old woman who has worked there for three years.
“I just followed the rest and, after I got out, I went home.”
Saban didn’t realise it at the time, but the walkout set off a chain of events that sparked Cambodia’s worst industrial strife this year.
Kingmaker, which produces shoes for well-known Western brands such as New Balance and Clarks, is located in Bavet’s Manhattan special economic zone.
It was in this area with 28 factories that the workers from Kingmaker rallied others in nearby factories, quickly gathering steam.
By Thursday, some 30,000 of the 34,000 workers in the Manhattan SEZ and the neighbouring Tai Seng SEZ were on strike.
And the strikes, based on demands for a higher minimum wage, soon devolved into violence.
Workers lobbed rocks at factories, while police and protesters clashed several times.
The instability has resulted in scores of police flooding the area, a two-day government work stoppage order, and national authorities scrambling to find a resolution.
As of yesterday, Bavet is quieter – for the first time this week workers went to work peacefully, but only under the watchful eye of about 1,000 police.
But the origins of the protests remain mysterious, spotlighting how quickly seething discontent can turn into riots that have no clear leaders to negotiate with.
It also remains unclear whether the situation can be brought fully under control, especially as workers question the narrative that all the violence came from their side and authorities continue to arrest their friends and co-workers.
Reports that workers in Bavet were striking over an insufficient increase to the minimum wage seemed odd at first, given that next year’s rate of $140 per month, $12 more than the current $128, was announced well over two months ago, on October 8.
But it appears that poor communication, along with a powerful sense of betrayal, contributed to a volatile mix. Most of the numerous garment workers interviewed by Post Weekend in Bavet said they had no idea what next year’s official minimum wage was. Many were under the mistaken belief that the government had promised a $20 rise every year.
Yin Mak, a 29-year-old factory worker in Manhattan SEZ’s Kaoway factory, said workers learned only recently and by word of mouth that 2016’s minimum wage was $12 rather than $20 higher.
“The workers were very angry when they learned that,” she said.
Compounding the problem was the lack of workers’ organisations in the SEZs, which could have been relied upon to disseminate the correct information about the wage when it was announced. While unions are not strictly banned, they are made highly unwelcome in the area.
“They have kept firing our representatives since 2013, but when there are problems they always ask us to help,” said Chea Oddom, provincial representative of the Cambodian Union for the Movement of Workers as he detailed the difficulty of organising in the SEZs.
As workers whispered of a government betrayal and the year came closer to ending, the strikes finally sparked on December 16 and quickly exploded into a mass movement.
Caught off guard and with unions denying any involvement, employers and authorities were quick to blame rumour mongering and secretive organisations.
“There must be a mastermind because the perpetrators were well coordinated,” said Ken Loo, spokesman for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
“I do not think workers from 40 different factories can spontaneously erupt with the same actions.”
No such mastermind was identified, and the situation spiralled out of control.
Hundreds of military police flooded Bavet last Friday, while hoses from fire trucks were used to disperse a crowd of thousands on Monday.
On Tuesday, the situation took a turn for the worse when protestors in the Manhattan SEZ pelted police with rocks, injuring two and damaging a firetruck. Images from the clashes of workers ripping off chunks of concrete and hurling them at police flooded the news.
“They used violence against us. We do not have the intention of hurting them,” said military policeman Keat Cheavorn as he sat in a clinic with a bandage on his head.
But garment workers interviewed by Post Weekend said the rock throwing was only a reaction to police abuses.
Pen Thear, a lanky 22-year-old, works at the DK factory in the Manhattan SEZ, and was one of 58 workers arrested on Monday outside the Tai Seng SEZ.
“When they asked us to sit down [after the arrest] that’s when they started beating us,” he said, showing marks on his back he said were from the police’s sticks.
“I came with three other men. All of them were beaten as well.”
Relatives of two of four men arrested on December 18 – Van Vicheat, 24, and Kong Phros, 27 – claimed their loved ones were beaten by police as well.
The wife of Phros, Chhim Lyna, said she learned her husband had been beaten by police after delivering food for him in jail.
“When they questioned my husband, they punched him twice in the face,” she said.
On Sunday, the brother of Van Vicheat, Van Vichara, said his sibling was beaten “on his back and legs” after he was arrested.
Ken Loo of GMAC said he did not know of police officers beating workers following their arrest, but acknowledged that scuffles with police may have resulted in workers being injured.
He said, however, that it was “the workers themselves who were violent in the first place”.
Following the well-publicised rock-throwing incident on Tuesday, authorities vowed to bring order.
They condemned the violence, but also promised to release the four workers arrested last Friday on condition of bail. In a further bid to cool tensions, authorities ordered workers not to come to work for two days.
On Wednesday morning, police lined the highway connecting the Manhattan and Tai Seng SEZs to steer away garment trucks from delivering workers to factories, while village chiefs ordered the garment workers in their towns not to go to work.
The move exasperated employers, however, who said the two-day stoppage would cause millions of dollars in losses.
Following a meeting with officials, employers and authorities said the two-day break did not come from the government, but likely from the workers themselves, a claim contradicted by all the workers, policemen and village chiefs Post Weekend interviewed in Bavet on Wednesday morning.
During the stoppage, a time period presented to village chiefs as intended for de-escalation, authorities arrested another six truck drivers for allegedly damaging a firetruck during Tuesday’s clashes.
Meanwhile, employers said the two days off would not be considered paid holiday, even though they were established indiscriminately for all workers.
Still, after two days of cooling off, the order appears to have worked – for now.
“Almost all the workers are back in the factories [yesterday], but we still keep watching and worry,” said Rex Lee, the manager of the Manhattan SEZ, who added that hundreds of police are still patrolling the area.
Indeed, the dispute is far from over. As employers urge authorities to make more arrests, workers are calling for those arrested to be released.
Despite repeated pledges from authorities to release them, the four workers arrested last Friday remain under detention, while the six arrested truck drivers were charged yesterday along with another garment worker [see page 3].
William Conklin, country director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, said the Bavet protests showed that productive labour relations remain a long way away in the Kingdom.
Conklin said making it less difficult to organise unions in the SEZs could have averted a crisis by keeping workers informed of things like next year’s exact minimum wage, while the past refusal of many factories to pay more than the bare minimum wage created a tinderbox-like situation.
“There’s a real lack of rule of law, and lots of cases of intimidation … maybe workers felt they were pushed to the limit,” he said.
“If [employers] keep exploiting labour and don’t pay attention to labour relations, they shouldn’t be surprised when there are outbursts like this.”