The border town of Bavet in Svay Rieng province was again roiled by unrest and alleged violence yesterday after police used fire hoses to disperse a crowd of striking garment workers, arresting 58 of them in the morning only to release them in the afternoon.
About 8,000 workers protested in front of the Tai Seng Special Economic Zone yesterday, throwing water bottles and chunks of ice at police, who responded with concentrated jets from four fire hoses, said Chea Oddom, provincial representative of the Cambodian Union for the Movement of Workers.
“The police tried to push them and they got angry with the police, so the workers threw water bottles and ice at them, and police used fire hoses to disperse them,” he said.
Nouth Bopinnaroath, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said 58 workers – 36 women and 22 men – were subsequently arrested and then released.
“We heard there would be a huge protest at the provincial police [station] if the police did not release the workers,” Bopinnaroath said, explaining the seeming leniency of the authorities.
But Ros Tharith, provincial director of administration, said the police merely “educated” the workers to never use force again.
“The police educated the workers and made an agreement that next time when they are unhappy or demand better conditions, they should talk and not use violence, and we will release them and they can go to work as normal,” he said.
Allegations of violence marred both sides of the protest yesterday.
Police claimed that the workers were carrying rocks to hurl at factories in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone. Protestors denied the charge, with one accusing the police of beating him.
“The police used their hands and sticks against me . . . They beat me in my neck and used sticks to hit me in the legs five times,” said worker Mom Phanna, 19.
The relative of one worker arrested during a separate incident on Friday also claimed his brother was beaten by police.
Tharith said that the authorities “did not crack down [on the workers]” and action was only taken to prevent further strife.
Unions have denied any involvement in the unruly strikes, which began after thousands of workers in special economic zones across Bavet walked out on the job last Wednesday.
The protesters were angered by what they considered an insufficient increase to the garment sector’s minimum wage, demanding a $20 raise to the current rate of $128, $8 more than the $140 figure mandated for 2016 by the government in early October.
Violence was soon reported after workers reportedly pelted factories with stones and broke doors down. On Friday, more than 600 provincial and military police flooded the zones in a bid to quell the unrest.
Nevertheless, Tharith said the volatile situation was calming down, with only two factories reporting strikes, down from the 39 last Thursday.
“We have almost reached a compromise between workers and employers,” he added.
In its second statement about the protests since last week, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) yesterday condemned the protesters for the unrest.
“GMAC thanks the Cambodian government for introducing suitable and timely action to prevent losses of a huge scale,” the statement reads.
“And GMAC completely denies opinions and accusations from some unions and human rights groups that the [events are part of] a crackdown and pressures human rights.”