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No violence main goal, SL exec says

Joseph Kee Leung Lee, director of SL International Holdings
Joseph Kee Leung Lee, director of SL International Holdings, talks to Post reporters from the SL garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Vireak Mai

No violence main goal, SL exec says

The director of the company that operates the embattled SL Garment factory suggested yesterday that he would comply with a government order to reinstate 19 union representatives and activists involved in a deadly months-long strike.

In an interview at the factory in Meanchey district, Joseph Kee Leung Lee, director of Singapore-based SL International Holdings, refused to directly say whether his company would accept back the 19 workers but said he supported the government’s intervention to end the dispute, which saw a bullet claim the life of a bystander during a clash between strikers and police last week.

“If they come back and that is the order of the government, I have no choice,” he said. “I support the government in stopping the strike and calming down everyone.”

Lee would not comment in detail on the 19 workers – members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) – saying to do so while SL was trying to sue them would be “contempt of court”, but said it would be difficult for them to show up to work again.

“These 19 people have beaten our workers,” he said. “Do you think they will come back and face those they have beaten before?”

But Lee, who is based in Canada, said the factory would welcome back the hundreds or even thousands of others who have been on strike, provided there was no more violence.

“If [they] can work properly without damaging the factory, without threatening other workers … why not? We need workers,” he said. “We’ve already lost $15 million. How can we do business?”

The Council of Ministers, following approval from Prime Minister Hun Sen, issued a letter on Friday, giving SL bosses until the end of this month to rehire the 19 workers the factory claims are responsible for the huge economic losses the strike has caused.

The directive followed a violent clash in Meanchey district between SL workers and police last Tuesday.

One woman, a 49-year-old rice vendor who was not involved in the strike, was shot dead during the clash after police opened fire on the crowd, some of which were hurling rocks.

Only one person out of 38 arrested that day was an employee of SL and all but two have since been released without charge.

In subsequent negotiations, C.CAWDU and SL could not agree on the reinstatement of the 19.

Lee yesterday took aim at the media for showing only “one side” of the violence that has involved SL protesters.

“You’ve come here too late,” he said. “[Strikers] attacked us with stones and sling shots [and] burned our cars and motorcycles,” he said, referring to clashes at the factory. “They beat one team leader in his house.… They hit his pregnant wife.”

In one case, C.CAWDU members, Lee claimed, barricaded “hysterical” Chinese staff inside a building, resulting in them calling the Chinese embassy and their families in their home country.

During yesterday’s interview, Lee brought out a young man, a worker at the factory, who had lost one of his eyes, allegedly after being fired at with a slingshot by strikers.

Lee said management had treated workers well, and he denied problems between staff and manager Meas Sotha, who strikers say hired military police some months ago to intimidate them.

“Yes, we had military police here,” Lee said. He added, however, that this was only because a security firm guarding the factory had called authorities after one of their staff was beaten by workers.

Lee also said it was not conclusive that police had fired the bullet that killed rice vendor Eng Sokhum, 49, despite witness accounts saying otherwise.

“It is very easy to find which kind of bullet is inside the victim,” he said. “Police said the victim was not in the operation area. You cannot [yet] say she was killed by police. Check the bullet. It’s very easy.”

Ath Thorn, president of C.CAWDU, yesterday denied strikers had perpetrated the violence Lee accused them of.

“The employers of SL and I have never had conflict before this [strike],” he said. “We’ve had a good relationship. The problem came when Meas Sotha became involved in the company – they blocked our negotiations.”

Thorn added that the company would “face court” and workers would “rally again” if it refused to reinstate the workers.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday he was not aware if SL had responded to the government’s letter.

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