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A garment factory worker holds a placard during a protest that saw Russian Boulevard blockaded by razor wire and riot police yesterday in Phnom Penh
A garment factory worker holds a placard during a protest that saw Russian Boulevard blockaded by razor wire and riot police yesterday in Phnom Penh. Garment workers are continuing to strike across the nation, demanding a higher minimum wage. Vireak Mai

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The government took a hard line against garment-factory strikers after thousands blocked Russian Boulevard in front of the Council of Ministers yesterday, ordering them to accept a $95 minimum wage and return to work on Thursday.

Alleging that six union groups provoked the nationwide strike – which officially began last week when workers were afforded a minimum monthly wage $65 less than they had asked – the Labour Ministry’s notice warned union leaders that the government will pursue legal action if the strike continues.

“The [$95] minimum wage was the decision of the Labour Advisory Committee’s on December 24,” the notice says. “Competent legal authorities will take steadfast legal action against anyone who agitates and disturbs employees and enterprises.”

Ministry officials sent the letter to leadership at the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the Free Trade Union (FTU), the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU).

Letters were sent to unions after the Council of Ministers issued a notice to the Labour Ministry, instructing Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng to warn of harsh consequences for union leaders, and to begin legal action against CCU president Rong Chhun.

“If they do not want to stop their strike, we will suspend their license,” reads the letter, which was signed by Council Secretary Ngor Hong Ly. “If they continue striking, we will cancel their licenses; and if they still continue then, we will sue them in court.”

But because his confederation is not registered with the Labour Ministry, Chhun will face immediate legal action, the letter says.

Upon hearing of the order, Chhun told the Post that striking will continue.

“The ministry only ordered this because they do not have the ability to resolve the issue for the workers,” Chhun said. If workers had no problem with the Labour Advisory Committee’s decision last week, they would not have begun the strike in the first place, he added.

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan insisted in an interview yesterday evening that rule of law must be restored. Once employees and employers “cool down”, they can consider negotiating among themselves.

“They used a public way [on Russian Boulevard], and it’s unlawful to do that.… They force the unwilling workers to [strike],” Siphan said, referring to a police report of 20 to 30 men who allegedly disturbed several factories, forcing some to join the strike.

“We do not think factory workers should be polarised by any political party,” Siphan added, asserting that “the unions … are aligned with the CNRP.”

Factories and workers are eager to return to work, Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) said, but whether unions involved with the strike will adhere to the order remains to be seen.

“We have to wait to see if the order is complied with, and more importantly, if the ministry will impose sanctions on workers and unions who do not comply,” Loo said.

Crowds of garment workers gather behind barbed wire on Russian Boulevard during a demonstration yesterday in Phnom Penh
Crowds of garment workers gather behind barbed wire on Russian Boulevard during a demonstration yesterday in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

GMAC released a statement on its website last night that said that some of its member factories that tried to open yesterday were disturbed by unionists. The factory association last week advised its 473 member factories to close for the strike’s duration, and 435 are currently still closed, the statement said.

Harsh rhetoric in government notices yesterday afternoon stood in stark contrast with what was said at the Labour Ministry in the morning, when ministry officials met with involved unions, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

The Labour Ministry appeared willing and ready to continue a dialogue with union leaders at the meeting, Welsh said. The change in attitude may prove counterproductive, he said.

“It’s very much not in the spirit of what this morning’s meeting was about,” Welsh, who attended the meeting, said in an interview yesterday. “If what they’ve done is simply restate what they said on [December] 24th, I don’t think that’s going to solve anything.”

Chhun also left the meeting believing government officials were open to negotiation. Before hearing of the order to end the strike yesterday, Chhun told the Post that a government lawyer had said that a $160 monthly minimum wage would be in garment workers’ best interest.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

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