Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Police block independent unions' May Day march

Police block independent unions' May Day march

Police block independent unions' May Day march

Thousands of garment workers belonging to independent trade unions swarmed into Phnom

Penh to celebrate International Worker's Day on May 1, only to be met by police and

military police with electric batons and fire hoses.

Phnom Penh city officials were reported to have given permission to the government-aligned

Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions to rally in front of the National Assembly,

but to have refused similar permission to two independent groups, the Free Trade

Union (FTU) and the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association (ITA).

Three FTU members were arrested and taken to Phnom Penh Police Station, then moved

to Russei Keo district hall.

Workers belonging to the independent unions were marching to draw attention to a

comprehensive list of demands: for higher wages, better working conditions, an end

to discrimination against their unions, a reduction in their working week from 48

to 44 hours, the establishment of a labor court, an end to corruption, and the elimination

of child labor.

Rong Chhun, president of the ITA, said he and Chea Mony, president of the FTU, planned

to lead factory workers, teachers, motorbike taxi drivers and citizens on the Labor

Day march into Phnom Penh, but only about 3,500 people managed to get past police

barricades into the city.

"Though there were many police roadblocks, some workers managed to get into

Phnom Penh on trucks and motorbikes and then by walking," Chhun said.

Oung Vuthy, 34, got up at 7am to join 600 of her fellow workers from the Bright Sky

Co Ltd who tried to walk along Veng Sreng Road to Phnom Penh, but were halted in

many places by military police.

"The price of goods in the market is continually rising, but our salary is still

the same. How can we survive?" Vuthy said.

"We already broke through two military police barricades, but got stuck behind

this third one on Stung Meanchey Bridge," Vuthy told the Post after she succeeded

in getting through the third barricade.

As she spoke, military police armed with electric batons tried to move workers back.

Vuthy got through the third barricade by pretending she lived near the bridge.

"I am not afraid," she said. "Because I'm not doing anything wrong.

I'm just celebrating Labor Day."

But another worker, Oung Samaly, 35, said, "Who wouldn't be afraid? They [police

and military police] are armed with guns and electric batons and chased us with fire

trucks."

Ou Sophat, an office worker with the FTU, who led the workers from garment factories

along Veng Sreng Street, said the march was not a demonstration but a celebration.

Some workers tried to go to the FTU office to lay floral wreaths in honor of Chea

Vichea, Chea Money's late brother and former leader of the FTU, who was assassinated

in January 2004, Sophat said.

"But the police would not agree to us doing that and tried to break us,"

he said. "They [police and military police] tried to break us at four or five

places from where the march started - about two kilometers from Stung Meanchey Bridge,"

he said.

Banners declaring "Stop discriminating against the union" and "Raise

salaries for garment factory workers, police, soldiers, teachers," were waved

above many workers' heads.

Chhum Sok, 47, a moto taxi driver, stopped his moto to watch police and military

police trying to break up the group of workers at Stung Meanchey Bridge. He said

he did not understand why the government restrained the workers.

"I think our democracy is going backwards," Sok said. "Everyone has

the right to speak out and protest. When the government does this, it wants to stifle

our rights completely.

"I tell you, I would not believe in any political party or even the local authority.

They always say this and that, but in reality, they do nothing," he said.

"I will not vote for any political party for the next election. But I might

as well take presents from them [political parties] if they give them to us."

Sok said he strongly supported workers calling for lowering the price of gasoline

and raising wages. He said he earns practically nothing every day, just enough for

gasoline - but a liter of gasoline now cost up to 4,000 riel.

Another 35-year-old moto taxi driver, who gave his name as Pov, said, "We cannot

say anything now because even human activists were arrested."

"If I protest like them [workers], my children at home will have no food to

eat."

The ITA's Rong Chhun said, "Democracy in Cambodia is going backwards."

To mark Labor Day, CHRAC, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition

of 21 NGO members, and the union federations representing garment factory, tourism,

construction, informal economic sectors and independent civil servants, issued a

joint a statement expressing concern about violations of workers' rights and lack

of attention by government institutions.

Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense

of Human Rights, said of the May 1 police action that her organization was "extremely

concerned about the restriction of workers with excessive force, which started very

early with workers and people prevented from entering the city."

"We're talking about young women primarily wanting to march together to celebrate

May Day and express their rights as factory workers," Pilorge said.

"Along with other NGOs, we are surprised and concerned that the Minister of

Interior did not allow the earlier demonstrations to take place."

Nhep Bunchin, Minister of Labor and Vocational Training, said he always insisted

that workers not use Labor Day to protest, strike or demonstrate, but to spend the

day as a "Happy Day."

"[I] ask workers to have tripartite discussions [between employees, employers

and the Ministry of Labor] if they are demanding something, in order not to benefit

to political parties," Bunchin said.

"If they still protest [on the street] like that, who will solve the problem

for them? Because only they are present, and employers and ministry are not there."

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