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Union reps suspended after more than a thousand strike in election day pay row

Police officials attempt to make their way through a protest by workers against Universal Apparel Cambodia yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Police officials attempt to make their way through a protest by workers against Universal Apparel Cambodia yesterday in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Union reps suspended after more than a thousand strike in election day pay row

Ten union representatives were yesterday suspended from the Southland garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district after more than a thousand workers went on strike to protest the factory’s decisions about time taken off for voting in Sunday’s commune elections.

The workers said they needed both Saturday and Monday off to travel and vote in far-flung provinces, such as Battambang and Banteay Meanchey, but the request had been denied.

Seng Sothy, 32, said it took her several hours to return to her Kampong Thom village to vote as traffic had been worse than normal due to the many others doing the same. “I spent almost a whole day to reach my village, so it’s impossible to come back the same day,” she said.

The National Election Committee, unions and both major parties had urged employers to give their staff adequate time off to vote, but no official directive was issued, and some argued that workers had been allowed to enrol to vote near their workplace rather than their hometown.

Workers gather to protest outside garment factory Universal Apparel Cambodia yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Workers gather to protest outside garment factory Universal Apparel Cambodia yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Southland employees had asked the factory to give them Saturday off in exchange for them working on the June 18 public holiday for the Queen Mother’s Birthday – a deal that the factory and the government-backed Cambodian Union Federation agreed on.

Yet the workers demanded that they have Monday off work too and still receive half their daily salary of around $7 for that day, whereas the factory insisted that workers who did not return that day would have the day taken out of their annual leave – to the chagrin of workers who were concerned that could impact their attendance bonus and yearly salary.

Out of the factory’s almost 2,000 employees, about 1,500 went on strike to protest the factory’s directive. In response, the factory then suspended 10 union leaders from the independent Collective Union Movement of Workers (CUMW), and another worker.

“For those who do not resume work on June 7, the factory will deduct the daily salary and all attendance bonuses, and will count it as absence without permission,” read an announcement pasted to the factory gate yesterday.

Lahn Phirum, a local CUMW representative, said the factory was taking advantage of the strike to suspend unionists and said workers had protested of their own volition.

“The factory tries again and again to claim [the protest is] linked with CUMW but the reality is that the factory just didn’t agree with the workers’ request,” Phirum said. “The factory decided to suspend 10 union’s representatives for seven months and say we’ve convinced workers to protest.”

Multiple attempts to reach Southland’s owners were unsuccessful yesterday.

Additional reporting by Erin Handley

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