Government officials have ordered SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd to reinstate 19 fired union representatives and activists, seemingly removing the final barrier to resolving the months-long strike that turned deadly last week.
The government has also promised to pay the medical bills of at least three factory workers injured when police opened fire on strikers, killing a bystander, in the capital last Tuesday.
The Ministry of Labour sent SL a letter on Friday, relaying that the Council of Ministers – following approval from Prime Minister Hun Sen – had ordered the factory to rehire the 19 fired members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the union representing a large majority of SL’s roughly 6,000-person workforce.
The November 15 order, posted on the Ministry of Labour’s website, came days after the ministry and NGOs facilitated a marathon negotiation session between C.CAWDU officials and SL management, which ended when the two sides reached an impasse over the fired workers.
Factory officials were given 15 days from Friday evening’s receipt of the letter to comply.
“If the factory does not respect the order, they will be fined in accordance with the Labour Law,” said Huon Soeur, deputy director of the Ministry of Labour’s disputes department.
While content with the order, C.CAWDU vice-president Kong Athit was not prepared to celebrate yesterday. SL management, he said, have met with union and government officials many times during the three-month strike, but rarely budged on workers’ demands. C.CAWDU is not yet clear on whether their members will return to SL after the Water Festival, he added.
It’s difficult to predict how management will receive the government order, said Dave Welsh, country manager of labour rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS, who attended the meeting Tuesday.
“That was the major sticking point.… It appeared to be non-negotiable,” Welsh said. “It’s unclear how the factory is going to react.”
SL officials who attended the meeting on Tuesday night were adamant in refusing to reinstate the 19 C.CAWDU union officials.
Chief executive Wong Hon Ming said at the time that the 19 were responsible for large profit losses.
SL’s general manager could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, declined to comment yesterday on the order because he had not yet read it.
Union leaders and SL have yet to sign an official agreement ending the strike. At the Tuesday meeting, SL verbally agreed to pay workers 50 per cent of wages they would have earned during the strike, and that Meas Sotha – who hired armed military police to stand guard inside the factory – would no longer have a presence at the factory.
A National Social Security Fund (NSSF) official confirmed yesterday that the fund will pay the medical bills of three SL Garment workers shot.
NSSF officer Ouk Chan Veasna told the Post that the fund – which compensates injured workers who pay into it – was acting out of pity for the workers, despite the law stating it didn’t have to cover injuries sustained during a strike.
“The NSSF’s rules are to pay workers who are injured in an accident at work or on the way to and from work,” she said. “Our [policy] is not to pay out workers injured when they join rallies.”
Chan Veasna said NSSF officials had decided to make an exception, but did not elaborate.
Sok Sokheoun, the wife of Ty Sophanith, 31, who was shot in the back and thigh, said she was pleased with the offer.
“We feel very happy when [Chan Veasna] … told me not to worry about my husband’s medical bills, because the NSSF will pay them.”
Ork Pau, 43, said that she, too, was relieved she did not have to pay hospital expenses but said she was not sure whether she would be able to return to work because she had lost fingers after being shot in the hand.
Both remain in Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital along with others who were shot, including 23-year-old Seng Sith, who said his bills were also being covered.
Meanwhile, opposition leaderships yesterday issued public calls for a criminal investigation into the shooting.
“We demand the real perpetrators, who shot on people during the protest, be found,” said Kem Sokha, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Sokha and other party members also allege that the police department’s use of live ammunition violated a prior agreement CPP officials made with the CNRP not to use violence against peaceful demonstrators.
But Loo, of GMAC, dismissed the notion that demonstrators – who threw rocks, burned cars and held police officers hostage – conducted their protest peacefully.
“It was peaceful to begin with, but it didn’t end up peaceful,” he said.
Two boys, 14 and 17, were arrested at the scene and charged last week with damaging property, insulting public officials, obstructing public officials and aggravation.
They remained in police custody yesterday, according to Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center – which is providing them pro bono legal representation.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA AND SHANE WORRELL