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
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,"
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
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."