An unruly protest in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet town entered its second day yesterday as thousands of garment workers from a number of special economic zones continued to throw stones and break windows as they demonstrated for a greater increase to the national garment industry minimum wage.
According to Has Bunthy, director of the Svay Rieng provincial labour department, 30,000 workers from 39 factories in the Manhattan, Tai Seng 1 and Tai Seng 2 Special Economic Zones (SEZ) walked out on Wednesday afternoon following a meeting with Ministry of Labour representatives to discuss next year’s minimum wage hike to $140 a month, an amount the workers said was too low.
Protesters are demanding a $20 increase from the current minimum wage, or $148 a month, Bunthy and others at the scene said.
“The protest to break windows and destroy factory property first started with a group of protestors, many of whom are women, from the Kingmaker (Cambodia) shoe factory at the Manhattan SEZ,” he said. “They threatened people not to work or they would throw rocks, or bother them in other ways.”
Though a greater number of police were deployed to the area yesterday, “it looked like they didn’t dare crack down out of fear of repeating the case of Chhouk Bandith”, Bunthy said, referring to the former Bavet town governor who shot three garment workers during a protest in 2012.
“Also, no union has claimed leadership of the protests,” he added.
Sok Khemara, a local representative of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, confirmed yesterday that no union was responsible for the protest.
While the protesting workers were answerable for the damage, he said, local officials also had to accept a share of the guilt for keeping unions out of the SEZs, preventing them from educating workers about the minimum wage when it was first settled months ago.
At Kingmaker, the factory where the protest began, Khemara said, workers had no knowledge of the new wage before Wednesday’s meeting.
A factory worker at the Best Way factory, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that “a lot of the factory workers broke through the factory’s door and came in to ask me and the other workers to come out and join the demonstration”.
Though the worker declined to participate, he said he too was unhappy with the new wage, and supported protesters’ demands that it be raised to $148.
Bunthy, the provincial labour official, said factories wouldn’t agree to a higher wage, and that all officials could do was try to sell workers on $140 a month.
The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia yesterday issued an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen characterising the protests as a “riot”, and calling on the authorities to restore order.
A Kingmaker worker who declined to be named said that the damage to the factory wasn’t great, but that “what we need now is to make workers come back to work”.
Koeng Khorn, the provincial police chief, declined to comment, and Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour referred questions to provincial governor Chieng Am, who could not be reached.