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Union wary of possible crackdown

Military police confront SL Garment Processing factory workers during a protest that drew thousands of striking employees to the streets in Phnom Penh
Military police confront SL Garment Processing factory workers during a protest that drew thousands of striking employees to the streets in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district on Friday. HENG CHIVOAN

Union wary of possible crackdown

Preparing for a demonstration expected to draw thousands of garment workers this morning, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said yesterday that he feared the possibility of a heavy-handed military police response.

“We are afraid the police will crack down on workers,” Thorn said.

Since employees at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd – represented by C.CAWDU – first began walking off the job about a month ago, worker demonstrations have remained largely peaceful and free of interference from authorities.

But a massive military police show of force that stopped a march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home on Friday and a recent violent turn taken at an SL protest have some observers concerned that authorities are taking a new approach towards the approximately 6,000 striking workers.

About 4,000 workers gathered at SL on Friday morning, C.CAWDU vice president Kong Athit said. With a petition detailing the workers’ 11 demands in hand, the large assemblage made its way towards the prime minister’s house on Sihanouk Boulevard, only to be stopped by about 1,000 military police and seven fire trucks.

Military police eventually allowed 30 SL demonstrators to pass and deliver their petition to members of the prime minister’s cabinet, but the stopping of the march stands in stark contrast to one earlier this month, during which a crowd of SL strikers roughly the same size blocked a busy stretch of Monivong Boulevard in front of City Hall for three hours.

“I think … during the post-election [period] the government was taking time to win garment workers over,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said. “Now they might be thinking they have the upper hand.… They’re feeling more comfortable than a month ago.”

The military police response on Friday also marked a departure from the government’s tone last week, when Hun Sen and the National Assembly pledged reforms to the Kingdom’s judiciary and economic land concession policy, Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said.

“The response of the military police on Friday is evidence that the [Cambodian People’s Party] doesn’t have any will to reform its government,” Tola said yesterday. “They want to make sure that there is no group of people who can stand up and protest.”

Furthermore, Tola said, the SL workers’ demands could be easily met if management would engage in good-faith negotiation with C.CAWDU. Key among the demands are the dismissal of Meas Sotha, a shareholder who hired military police to stand guard inside the factory; a $3-per-day food allowance; full salary payment for the time workers spend striking; and the dismissal of all military police stationed inside the factory.

Management at SL maintains that demands from workers, who briefly returned to work before going back on strike after military police guarding the factory severely beat an employee during a smaller demonstration on September 20, are unreasonable.

The majority of SL’s workforce is only participating in the ongoing strike because C.CAWDU members have threatened and pressured them, said an SL administrator who asked not to be identified.

“The workers, they had to come [back] to work for us, but then C.CAWDU … pressured them,” the administrator said. “They always terrorise and then they don’t get [workers] any benefits.”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the deadlock between SL management and workers may signify the end of the line for arbitration.

“I think the time for negotiation has come and passed. It’s come to a point where it’s beyond negotiation,” Loo said yesterday. “I think the authorities need to step in.”

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