Thousands of garment factory workers yesterday blocked traffic in the city centre as they called for – and seemingly won – the return of hundreds of fellow employees who were fired earlier this week, allegedly for their union involvement.
The approximately 4,000-person demonstration in front of Phnom Penh’s City Hall by SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd blocked a busy stretch of Monivong Boulevard for three hours as SL employees flooded into the street.
Workers pumped their fists and chanted while standing between City Hall and Raffles Hotel Le Royal, where representatives of 25 international apparel brands were meeting yesterday to discuss industry issues, including wages and strike resolution.
The protest followed an announcement from management at SL – which supplies Gap, Levi’s and H&M – that they fired hundreds of employees less than a week after employees returned from a two-week strike.
SL only fired the 720 employees in an effort to intimidate the workforce, Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said as union members rallied protesters with speeches given through loudspeakers perched atop a tuk-tuk parked in the middle of the street.
“They want the workers to feel afraid,” Thorn said before walking into City Hall to engage in negotiations.
Employees at SL learned of the firings on Wednesday, C.CAWDU vice-president Kong Athit said. Some workers who returned the previous Friday found their work stations locked or without electricity, and were then fired for not performing their duties, he said.
Chin Sao, an administrative manager at SL, denied the claim, asserting that the employees showed up at the factory, but refused to work.
He said that all fired workers would be permitted to return to work today.
“If they come back to work [they can work], but if they do not work, we will fire them again,” Sao said.
When SL announced the firings, it said workers would receive only their last month’s wage and annual bonus as severance. Cambodia’s labour law generally requires companies to provide fired workers with at least 10 days’ notice and payment for unused leave and possibly damages, among other facets.
“The employers consider us slaves,” Thean Sreypheak, an 18-year-old SL employee who was fired, said at the rally. “They use us when they want us, but then they kick us out.”
Management has every right to fire employees at will, Thorn said, but they must pay outgoing workers proper severance.
Recanting the firings could avoid SL’s risk of alienating its international buyers, said Dave Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Centre/ACILS. But if it continues its pattern of heavy-handed tactics and refusing to engage in serious collective bargaining with unions, unrest at the company will likely continue, Welsh said,
“I suspect if there’s no effort at good faith negotiation”, little will change, he said. “It’s not like these workers have gone to this length for nothing.”
SL management will enter back into talks with C.CAWDU, said Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which advised SL to recant the letter.
“There will be further negotiations, further meetings, and we’ll see if this round can lead to some kind of solution,” Loo said.