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SL’s future prospects look grim

SL Garment Processing factory workers protest alongside thousands of fellow striking employees in a sit-in demonstration on the streets of Phnom Penh
SL Garment Processing factory workers protest alongside thousands of fellow striking employees in a sit-in demonstration on the streets of Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district last week. HENG CHIVOAN

SL’s future prospects look grim

As the strike at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd edges toward its second month, observers on both sides of the issue said this week they fear management and the union may have reached an impasse that could shut the Singaporean factory’s doors for good.

More than 6,000 SL workers began walking off the job in August, after shareholder Meas Sotha hired armed military police to stand guard inside the factory, which the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) has called an effort to intimidate unionised workers – an allegation Sotha has denied.

Among other points, workers demanded a pay raise, $3 per day to subsidise their lunches and the dismissal of Sotha. Since the strike began, SL and C.CAWDU have engaged in several fruitless negotiation sessions facilitated by government officials.

The factory’s seeming unwillingness to budge and, at times, drastic actions – SL announced the firing of more than 700 striking employees last month, before rescinding the terminations – have left Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, pessimistic about negotiations.

“The management is playing tricky games with its employees,” Tola said yesterday.

In the past, Tola has watched as companies engaging in labour disputes close their doors, only to reopen later – often with a different name – using a screening process during the hiring process to keep active unionists out, he said.

“I keep saying we suspect [SL] management will take that tactic to discriminate the unions,” Tola said.

But despite the divergent objectives of management and the strikers, Kong Athit, vice-president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, believes the two groups share an interest in the factory’s overall health.

“We are not an enemy, we are a partner,” said Athit. “We can solve anything, I think.”

In addition to SL’s lost productivity, the ongoing labour issue has strained relationships with buyers. Last week, the Post reported that Levi’s Strauss & Co has stopped buying from SL, with Gap and H&M reducing their orders since August. SL officials calculated those losses at more than $1 million.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said in an interview on Sunday that he believes SL workers and management have reached an irreconcilable stand-off and that SL should feel free to take whatever action it feels necessary.

“The strike did not conform with procedures, and it has been declared illegal by the courts twice, so the workers need to bear that in mind,” Loo said.

Lim Chandara, assistant to SL’s chief executive officer, yesterday said SL had no plans to close the factory and denied C.CAWDU’s past allegations that SL was trying to flush the union out of the factory. However, he placed the blame for the continuing strike solely on the union.

“Our business had no problems for 10 years, but since C.CAWDU entered about a year ago, it has often caused problems for us,” Chandara said. “If we knew in advance that C.CAWDU would make so many problems, we would not have allowed this union to register with our company.”

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