Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Workers caught up in political fray

Workers caught up in political fray

Workers caught up in political fray

GARMENT workers claim that government officials intervened in a industrial dispute

on Feb 25 and forced them to abandon claims for better treatment.

Union organizers, including KNP president Sam Rainsy, later said workers had been

forced into thumb-printing and signing a petition saying they were happy with their

pay and working conditons, and that they were unhappy with Rainsy.

The move comes amidst fears that the worker demonstrations are going to be repressed

violently as Hun Sen comes under increasing pressure.

The 450 workers, in an abrupt about-face, were the same who on February 16 staged

a violent demonstration at the Sin Lan Ho factory about their pay and conditions.

A spokesman for the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia said that the workers

were forced to sign the agreement or face dismissal. He also said a number of CPP

officials were at the factory yesterday including Hun Sen adviser Om Yentieng, who

could not be contacted for comment at press time.

Rainsy said he had been visited by a number of the workers who all told him they

had been coerced into both signing the agreement and protesting against him.

He said he has now told workers to abandon the protest and suggested they take grievances

to an international group like the International Labour Organization.

A government source said that while Rainsy may have chosen unwisely on some issues,

to attack Hun Sen via disaffected workers was a smart but maybe dangerous move.

He warned that it was not in Hun Sen's nature to let the protests continue unchallenged.

"The logic of having absolute power is that you have to stay absolute and implement

it in an absolute way. Absolute power uses repressive means and therefore you create

escalation. So what do you do? You go ahead and kill more people, you make more people

unhappy, you make more problems. At that time the situation is ripe [for] internal

revolt."

Protest leader Ou Mary has implicitly acknowledged a blurring of lines between genuine

displays of worker unrest and the political capital being gained - despite denials

that this is his aim - by politician Sam Rainsy, who assists garment workers with

their grievances.

The first anniversary of the March 30 grenade attack, which killed 19 people at a

political rally led by Rainsy but attended by many garment workers, is approaching

amid this atmosphere of escalating confrontation.

Mary, the president of FTUWKC, said her protesters know the risks of going to a demonstration

but they will keep doing it.

"I am not scared. We are working for our workers," she said.

"We will still have the demonstrations so owners obey the law and recognize

that our people are not slaves."

Mary said even the most vulnerable workers were still adamant they would keep agitating.

"The young garment workers are not afraid. People attend demonstrations because

they are sick of mistreatment," she said.

Rainsy denied that he had any political motivation in helping the workers, saying

it was only his humanitarian duty.

Mary said they will accept help from anyone, regardless of their politics.

"We are supported by Sam Rainsy but our union is independent and neutral. Sam

Rainsy is an intellectual and he knows about the situation of the workers. We need

him for advice, not politics. We welcome anyone who helps us or takes care of our

workers."

But despite the stated motivations there is a clear political payoff for Rainsy and

his Khmer Nation Party - his profile is raised among working people who see him as

their ally.

The presence of the Second Prime Minister's strongest critic at the strikes, combined

with foreign pressure over the elections and rumors of serious financial problems

for the government, points to an imminent crackdown on the workers demonstrations

by Hun Sen.

There are few indications that either side is going to back down.

Mary and her union, while high-profile, are the dark horse in the current situation.

They have a clear agenda and so far have refused to budge under pressure, but have

always been ready to negotiate.

They have had a number of victories, particularly against garment factory owners.

Before yesterday's cave-in the union had been successfully raising workers' standards.

They had recently been negotiating with the Belgium Garment factory an agreement

that they would pay their staff the legal minimum of $40 per month - some staff were

previously paid as little as $10.

When the union made its debut as a negotiator at the beginning of last year, its

first contract stipulated, as a first concession, a management agreement to stop

beating their workers.

The history of the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia and of Mary are intertwined.

She grew up near Phnom Penh. A large family and a lack of money meant there was little

chance for education and an urgent need for her to contribute money to the family

as soon as possible.

"I am the child of a farmer, four brothers and two sisters. Our family is very

poor so I could not get a high level of education."

She started working in factories from the age of 17 and after eight years of toil

and mistreatment she decided enough was enough.

"I thought the factory owner was bad. I saw the workers were forced to work

hard day and night and the owner always had the right to sack the worker whenever

he wanted.

"The owner saw the workers as slaves and abused the women. He said if his company

did not invest in Cambodia the women at the factory would be taxi girls.

"We had enough of that abuse. We decided to start up a union to protect the

workers from violence."

While the workers are defending themselves from violence in the workplace, they may

be setting themselves up for violence on the streets.

But Mary and her union are undaunted.

She said the violence they face is no worse than what many workers are already suffering

in some factories.

She said: "The marchers believe they have nothing to lose."

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