A day after police in Kampong Speu province arrested six striking workers, the unexpected presence of about 100 military police officers at a garment factory in Takeo province had some union activists fearing the worst.
Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) president Pav Sina yesterday said he believed authorities came to the I-Cheng (Cambodia) factory in Bati district not to prevent violence, as authorities suggested, but to arrest nine union activists leading the now two-week-old strike.
“This morning, my [CUMW] officials called me and told me that police and military police are seeking their arrest at the factory,” Sina said. “I told them to escape and hide in a safe place.”
Pointing to the Kampong Speu arrests, Sina said he feared workers could be arrested just for participating in a strike.
“I think that union rights are being threatened, which is against national and international law,” he said.
About 2,000 workers at I-Cheng have walked off the job, demanding a $5 monthly bonus for baby formula and workplace fans, CUMW’s I-Cheng chapter president Sok Chea said, adding that authorities have threatened to arrest unionists in the past.
Takeo deputy military police chief Chhim Sorvakdy dismissed talk of arrests, saying his department’s presence was meant to quell any potential public disturbance.
An ongoing strike at Kampong Speu province’s Wing Star Shoe factory has caused concern about such industrial action in Takeo, he said.
“We did not attempt to arrest the workers or the union officials,” Sorvakdy said. “We are afraid they will block the road, like employees at Wing Star.”
Police arrested six Wing Star strikers in Kampong Speu on Tuesday, when they blocked National Road 3, Sina said.
Ouk Sophal, Kampong Speu deputy police chief, said he was not aware of the case. Provincial police chief Keo Pisey declined to comment.
Charging the strikers with incitement for blocking a road – a widely used tactic – is a bad approach, and amounts to political posturing, Free Trade Union president Chea Mony said.
“I think when workers strike, the top priority for factories and the Ministry of Labour should be negotiation,” Mony said.
Arrests of strikers and the military police presence at I-Cheng demonstrates the government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards unions, said Joel Preston, a consultant for the Community Legal Education Center. The adversarial position has been on the rise since January, he said, and has intensified since authorities cracked down on an International Labour Day gathering in Phnom Penh a week ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, the persecution of the unions right now for me is unprecedented,” said Preston, who has worked in Cambodia for three years.