THOUSANDS of factory workers gathered in front of Phnom Penh’s Tack Fat garment factory after the company shut its doors on Thursday morning and announced a suspension of production in the midst of the global downturn that has seen dozens of other Cambodian factories close this year.
Factory workers, more than 1,800 of whom appeared in front of the facility in the capital’s Meanchey district, said the closure had come as a surprise, as factory owners had informed union representatives about it only a day before.
Twenty-eight year old Leap Chanthouen said that workers were told they will receive US$10 per month in salary while the factory is closed. She and other Tack Fat employees expressed frustration with the factory’s suspension, however, and said that the proposed compensation was not enough.
“It is unacceptable that the factory closed today,” she said. “We are here to protest.”
Meas Samphars, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said workers were demanding their salary from September as well as a 50 percent payment of their base salaries during the suspension in production.
Chiv Leang, a Tack Fat representative, emphasised the fact that his organisation is not closing permanently, adding that it plans to meet its obligations to the workers.
“We will pay them their September salary on October 10, and during the suspension, we will pay them $10 per month,” he said, adding that Tack Fat is negotiating with the Ministry of Labour regarding the terms of the suspension.
Kei Savuth, director of the Ministry of Labour’s labour conflict office, said his ministry was still considering whether to approve the suspension.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said he suspected that the suspension was a move by the Tack Fat management to avoid paying worker salaries in the face of imminent closure.
“I believe that the factory owners intend to close the factory completely, but they are concerned that workers will ask for a seniority bonus if that happens, so they are using a suspension to avoid responsibility,” he said.
Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, dismissed this assertion, saying members of the Tack Fat management are victims in the same way that workers are.
“This is a function of the international economy right now – we are in crisis, the whole world is in recession,” he said.
“We would very much like to help [the workers], but unfortunately it’s not something we can do right now.”
Some 130 Cambodian garment factories have closed or suspended production in 2009, the Ministry of Labour said last week, leaving more than 30,000 workers jobless and an additional 30,000 temporarily out of work.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE