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Fearful workers urged to stay

Garment factory workers from Prey Veng province return to Phnom Penh after voting in July.
Garment factory workers from Prey Veng province return to Phnom Penh after voting in July. An estimated 20 per cent of workers have not returned to work after casting their ballots last month. PHA LINA

Fearful workers urged to stay

Key players in all quarters of the garment industry have expressed concerns that workers, fearing a violent election-related conflict, may leave work and return to their home provinces after their next pay cheque.

In a statement, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) joined the government this week in urging workers who have remained home since the July 28 election to return to work – and those who did come back to remain in Phnom Penh.

“People may leave in the next few days after they are paid,” said Kong Athit, C.CAWDU’s vice-president, in the statement. “According to the situation, nobody can tell what’s going to happen [politically], but we estimate it’s not going to be too serious.”

When Phnom Penh garment factories – which were required by the Ministry of Labour to allow workers three days to return to their home provinces to vote – reopened their doors on July 30, several reported workers not returning. Some of the workers told the Post they decided or were told by family members to stay home after hearing rumours of armed military officers on every corner and mass rioting.

Factory owners then said the number of workers absent from work that day matched the amount of employees who fail to attend the day after holidays such as Khmer New Year.

C.CAWDU, citing media reports and discussions with workers and management at about five factories, and Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh both publicly estimated 20 per cent of the garment workforce – about 80,000 workers – have not returned to work since the July 28 election.

They fear more will soon leave amid perceived political tension after Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy called for mass demonstrations if his party is not declared the election winner.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, yesterday contested that figure, saying most were back at work. But he is worried.

“Now, what we are concerned about is workers leaving because of fear of unrest,” Loo said yesterday. “That’s the danger; that’s what we’re concerned with.”

Workers at SL Garment 2 factory in Phnom Penh were upset when management declined to pay them in advance of their scheduled payday on Saturday, said employee Kim Sreyka, 24.

Sreyka said yesterday that her parents have been calling her several times each day, begging her to return to their home in Prey Veng province.

“The workers sent a letter to the company, requesting pay cheques today because some workers need money to travel to their homelands and some need money to buy food to keep at home in case any problems occur,” Sreyka said. “[My parents] want me to stay in my hometown for a few days to wait for the situation to get better.”

Chhin Sao, the administrative manager at the factory, said trepidation among workers about possible unrest has put him in the role of quelling fears.

“I spread information from the government calling for them to them keep calm,” Sao said. “But some people are still afraid.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN

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