Off a bumpy, dusty road about a mile from Kampong Cham’s main square, few of the 30 or so people milling about the muddy patch of land in front of Juhui Footwear yesterday were involved in the violent clash with management on Monday.
One of those who could describe the incident in front of the factory, Ma Srey Poev, a 37-year-old striking worker, said factory managers provoked assaults during the largest incident in the month-long strike. A factory manager tells a different story, saying the mob broke through their gate and threw shoes, rocks and other projectiles, injuring three.
“We don’t call [Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Worker’s Democratic Union] a union anymore,” Teng Sambath, Juhui’s human resources manager said at Juhui’s office yesterday. “We call them representatives of a group of workers who came to crush.”
The 10- to 15-minute melee at about 8am on Monday was the product of frustration among workers who began striking on September 1 after management had refused a 16-point list of demands. These included better overtime pay, and more money for transportation and lunch, said worker representative Khan Kolap.
While Monday’s clash seems to have been the climax of the strike, weary protesters now seem more interested in getting back to work.
“I still want to go back to work there, because … I can recognise when there’s a problem,” said Kolap, who wants to continue to seek concessions for workers there.
Sitting at a small cafe on the same long street as the factory yesterday, Kolap and Mon Sarem, C.CAWDU’s deputy representative at Juhui, defended workers demands. Although Juhui provides a $7 per month transportation bonus and 700 riel (about $0.18) per day for lunch, the truck she rides to work costs Kolap $10 per month. Sarem pays 2,000 riel ($0.50) for lunch each day.
C.CAWDU and Juhui had brought the matter before the Arbitration Council two months ago, said a high-ranking Juhui management official who asked not to be named. The Council ruled in the factory’s favour, cementing Juhui’s denial of the demands.
The Council was unable to confirm the ruling yesterday evening.
On September 1, the C.CAWDU-led walkout of 5,000 workers at the footwear factory – which employs around 6,000 people – briefly crippled their operation for about two weeks. After that, workers began trickling back to work, cognisant of their need for money for the upcoming Pchum Ben holiday, according to Kolap. However, a core of about 1,000 workers continued actively protesting.
The Juhui manager said the strikers actually amounted to about 300 people, who on a daily basis terrorised the factory; blocking trucks, condemning the factory on loudspeakers and threatening employees with violence if they continued showing up to work.
“Local police do not do anything,” he said. “So they can do whatever they want without consequence.”
But the strikers have struggled and sacrificed for their principles since the walkout, Kolap and Sarem said.
“All the workers [on strike] try very, very hard; sometimes they don’t have meals to eat,” Kolap said. The mounting resentment toward the factory’s management led to Monday morning when strikers gathered in front of Juhui’s front gates. Workers say about 1,000 people were there; management says 500.
Both Juhui and strike representatives agree that the mob broke through the main sliding gates at 8am, squaring up with managers and workers who stepped in front of the factory down a small road.
Strike and union representatives said that management ordered workers to gather rocks, and that they first threw water bottles at strikers, then also grabbed and slapped women. Angered, the strikers retaliated by throwing anything they could find.
Factory officials said they stepped outside and were barraged by projectiles thrown by the mob. They sought refuge inside their office, where they spent the rest of the day inside without food or a bathroom.
Sambath said the majority of the group never worked there, but Kolap said that all were former employees who wore their nametags.
C.CAWDU will meet with Juhui tomorrow to present a new 12-point list of demands.
But the number of strikers has dwindled to about 300, as many have either found jobs elsewhere or were rehired at Juhui, said Kolap, although as new employees with base salaries, regardless of experience.
If no progress is made on Friday, Sarem said, her need to help her husband feed their three children will supersede what she believes Juhui owes its workers.
“I feel a bit hopeless,” Sarem said. “If there’s no clear result [on Friday], then I will find another job.”