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Incitement charge over SL rioting

Union president Ath Thorn speaks to the media in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court
Union president Ath Thorn speaks to the media in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday after being charged with incitement. Heng Chivoan

Incitement charge over SL rioting

Despite a December strike-ending agreement that saw lawsuits against labour leaders and workers dropped, union president Ath Thorn yesterday was charged with incitement by Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Leaving court yesterday morning, Thorn, who heads the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said the charge encompassed three separate cases stemming from last year’s four-month strike at the SL Garment factory, which was punctuated by a deadly November riot.

“The prosecutor is charging that [C.CAWDU] ordered workers to commit violence,” Thorn told reporters after the two-hour questioning session. “If there is no more evidence, [I think] the judge will drop this case.”

The December 3 agreement between C.CAWDU and SL stipulated that the garment manufacturer drop lawsuits filed against striking union workers and remove shareholder Meas Sotha from managerial capacity. The deal also called for labour rights groups to coordinate with SL buyers – which include H&M and Gap – to pay workers half of their wages lost during the strike, plus bonuses.

None of those conditions have been met, Thorn said yesterday.

Spokespeople from H&M and Gap did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

A representative of SL executive director Wong Hon Ming confirmed that company officials had dropped their lawsuits against C.CAWDU.

Attorney Kim Socheat, who represents Thorn, yesterday said that charges against his client and union activist Pav Phanna resulted from a court complaint filed by Sath Sophai, a security guard who works at SL, not the factory itself. However, he said, it seems doubtful that Sophai filed the lawsuit of his own volition.

“We think that the company is behind this complaint,” Socheat said yesterday. He added that he has received no paperwork indicating that SL dropped lawsuits filed against C.CAWDU members.

Deputy prosecutor Ek Cheng Houth could not be reached for comment.

About 4,000 SL workers first walked off the job on August 12 last year, demanding Sotha’s dismissal after he commissioned military police to stand guard inside the factory.

Unions alleged the action was meant to intimidate workers and suppress union activity, but Sotha said the security was brought in to maintain workers’ safety.

In the course of the tumultuous strike, violence erupted during a September 20 rally. Workers were allegedly beaten, warning shots fired and strikers are claimed to have destroyed property inside the factory.

Strikers and supporters trying to march from the Meanchey district factory to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house on November 12 were stopped by a police blockade near Stung Meanchey Bridge.

The police action sparked a riot in which demonstrators burned police vehicles and trapped police officers in a building inside the grounds of a pagoda, before authorities opened fire with live ammunition on the crowd.

The hail of bullets killed a food vendor and injured at least nine people.

Outside the courthouse yesterday, Lach Sithorn, head of C.CAWDU’s SL branch, decried legal action taken against union members.

“We already agreed that all court complaints would be dropped,” Sithorn said.

“Why is the court still charging our leader?”

C.CAWDU will write letters to the Ministry of Labour – which facilitated the agreement – and other government officials to complain about SL’s breach of the deal, Thorn said.

“The company has not respected the agreement,” Thorn said. “They want to destroy the union.”