The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
In an industry rife with labor strikes, the workers at the SL Garment Factory in recent months have been strident, and sometimes violent, in their efforts to have their demands for better working conditions met by factory bosses.
Tuesday’s clash with police near Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey bridge, where one woman was shot dead and several others injured by authorities, was the third time since September that protests by SL workers have turned violent.
Many of the demands by the SL workers are typical: higher wages and a lunch stipend, but others are not.
Among the workers’ central demands is the resignation of Meas Sotha, an administrator and shareholder in the SL factory, who workers say is responsible for bringing armed security guards into the plant in recent months to intimidate workers inclined to unionize.
“Everything changed since he started working here,” said Oum Visal, a factory representative of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), which has organized what is now a three-month-long strike by its members in the SL factory.
Mr. Visal said that since Mr. Sotha took on an active role in managing the factory midway through this year, armed security forces have been stationed in and around the factory, union leaders have been targeted for intimidation and strikes have increasingly been met with force.
“That is why all the workers hate him [Mr. Sotha] very much,” Mr. Visal said.
On September 6, 700 workers who had been fired from the SL factory for protesting were reinstated after negotiations between CCAWDU, factory management, and Phnom Penh’s new governor, Pa Socheatvong. However, that did not stop the unrest at SL.
Three weeks later, a riot broke out in which some 300 protesting workers stormed the factory premises, destroying more than 30 cars as well as computers and other machinery inside the plant.
One of the protesters’ demands was the removal of Mr. Sotha, who said at the time he had no plans to step down as he was a shareholder in the factory. He also promised to pursue legal action against those responsible for the damage at the factory.
Workers have since complained that military police have regularly been posted around the factory—a move that Phnom Penh municipal officials claimed is necessary to ensure order among the workers.
On October 21, protesting workers made their way to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house in central Phnom Penh using what union leaders said was a new tactic in which striking workers trickled into the nearby park to avoid suspicion among authorities until they launched a full-fledged demonstration on the prime minister’s doorstep.
Riot police pushed the protesters back from Mr. Hun Sen’s house and eventually dispersed after CCAWDU president Ath Thorn and Mr. Socheatvong agreed to settle the dispute at the negotiating table. That did not happen.
Now, with the shooting death of 49-year-old street-side food vendor Eng Sokhom during Tuesday’s protest, the SL demonstrations for the first time turned fatal.
Regardless of the death and injuries, Mr. Sotha, the factory’s shareholder, said Tuesday that he still has no plans to step aside, adding that he is neither responsible for the actions of the police nor deserving of the scorn from the protesting workers.
“I have no right to order military police to crack down on protesters, but authorities have the duty to maintain security for the people,” Mr. Sotha said.
“The workers hate me because they are confused,” he added.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, of which SL Garment Factory is a member, said that regardless of their grievances, it was not within a union’s right to demand management changes.
“This has never been and will never be the right of the workers or unions to decide who the company decides to represent its management team,” Mr. Loo said.
“If this happens at one factory, the others will ask for the same thing, so where does it end?” he asked.
Mr. Loo said that factory management might be more receptive to a call for the withdrawal of the security forces from the factory, rather than the removal of Mr. Sotha.
“Obviously, the management of SL had these people [security guards] put in place,” he said.
“If that is the case then the complaint [by workers] should have been for the factory to remove all armed forces. If that had been the demand, I think the factory would have taken it into consideration,” Mr. Loo said.
However, Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that Mr. Sotha’s continued participation in the administration of the factory would prevent a resolution of the ongoing dispute between workers and management.
“Since this guy came there have been a lot of disputes between management and workers,” Mr. Tola said, citing the deployment of armed guards and tighter restrictions on union activities as being among Mr. Sotha’s most unpopular moves at the SL factory.
“There is no solution for SL workers [until] their main demand of the removal of Meas Sotha [is met]. When you talk to the workers, he is the reason the workers come out” to protest, Mr. Tola said.
Dave Welsh, country head of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based organization advocating for labor rights, said the situation can be resolved, but it must be done quickly.
“What the union is dealing with is threats of physical intimidation and not being able to bargain collectively. And to the extent that the factory is able to address those issues, the tensions will decline,” Mr. Welsh said.
Khieu Savuth, chief of the labor conflict commission in the Ministry of Labor, said that he had already invited SL union representatives for a meeting this afternoon to try to settle the conflict.
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