Frustration over a nearly four-month stalemate gave way to jubilation last night as about 1,000 garment workers threw up their arms and cheered as union representative Ouch Noeun announced the official end of the strike at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd.
“Our struggle is a success; today is our best day,” Noeun, secretary-general of SL’s chapter of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), shouted into a microphone in front of the SL1 factory.
“After today, everybody will know that the workers at SL got their justice, and we appeal to every employer to respect human rights.”
The celebratory end to the strike came after a three-and-a-half-hour meeting at the Ministry of Labor between SL and C.CAWDU, at which officials from the ministry, garment industry and labour rights groups watched each side sign a five-point agreement, said Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center.
Under the agreement, SL will reinstate 19 fired C.CAWDU leaders and activists, pay workers half the wages they would have earned during the strike, return employees to their previous work schedule, drop all lawsuits filed against C.CAWDU in relation to the strike and keep shareholder Meas Sotha from having contact with workers.
The ministry also formed a committee of government, labour and industry officials to oversee the agreement’s implementation, Welsh said.
C.CAWDU members at SL, in the capital’s Meanchey district, walked off the job on August 12 after Sotha hired armed military police to stand guard inside the factory, a move union members saw as an intimidation tactic against them.
Last night’s strike-ending agreement came three weeks after Eng Sokhom, a 49-year-old street food vendor, was killed and at least nine others injured by bullets after police opened fire on hundreds of demonstrators marching in support of the C.CAWDU-led strike.
All employees are welcome to return to work today, Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, said. But SL will give workers who returned to their home provinces during the strike two weeks to come back.
The longevity and intensity of the strike should serve as a warning to factory owners and international brands – SL supplies to Gap and H&M, and supplied to Levi Strauss & Co until they pulled out in August – that refusing to engage in good-faith negotiation with employees can result in huge losses, Welsh said.
“The point I would take from this is the seriousness of the labour rights movement,” he said.
But in the eyes of Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, both C.CAWDU and SL lost out in the end.
“Ultimately, both parties lost, there is no winner,” Loo said, noting workers lost half their wages and SL lost profit and business while gaining a bad international reputation.
But a palpable air of victory overtook the crowd in front of SL last night.
“It’s been nearly four months,” employee Chhouen Theary, 23, said. “I’m so happy.”