Eak Yuthea Reak went to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Friday clutching a small piece of paper inscribed with seven names. He was there to collect the national exam results of a group of friends who couldn’t bear the stress of finding out their scores in person.
The SL Garment Factory is a name that has become uniquely synonymous with strikes and strife in a sector that employs hundreds of thousands of workers and already has problems with its poor public image.
Thousands of the factory’s workers have been in dispute with management for more than a year, demanding higher wages, a lunch stipend and the removal of one of the firm’s shareholders, Meas Sotha.
On Tuesday, the latest SL protest turned deadly during clashes between protesters and police in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district. Police responded to stone-throwing youths with bullets, and a bystander was shot dead and several were injured.
Inside the factory on Friday, the firm’s embattled but jovial director, Hong Kong-born Joseph Kee Leung Lee, said he was feeling exasperated yet determined: “We want people to hear our side of the story,” he said.
According to Koh Chong Ho, the Singaporean general manager of SL, “we are the victims.”
“It’s very easy for people to find SL. When they see the roadblock, that’s SL! They’ve been there for three months!” Mr. Lee said of the group of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU) workers outside the factory gates, huddled under an umbrella in the middle of a muddy, potholed road.
The factory has about 5,000 employees across its various operations, which include the running of a power plant. But, with the ongoing industrial action these days, only about 1,000 men and 1,000 women pass the factory’s gates each day.
“The tangible losses are about $15 million from the strikes,” Mr. Lee said.
Tension has existed between workers and management for some time over varying issues.
Mr. Lee said the factory provides a free $0.25 lunch to its workers. And when they threw the free lunch on the ground to protest the quality, management invited a committee of workers and union representatives to prepare a weekly menu.
“I solved the problem and educated them. That’s the way I do it here,” Mr. Lee maintained.
“During last year’s strike in May, which lasted for about three weeks, workers burned 50 motorbikes,” he said. “After the riot we had many negotiations with the unions, and they promised no more strikes if we compromised on some things.”
He said management has “very good communication” with the three unions at the factory.
According to Mr. Lee, the largest union, CCAWDU, is the only one holding out over a management proposal to merge three shifts—two day and one night—into two shifts—a move that management claims would give workers more overtime pay.
Mr. Lee also claimed that workers’ pay has increased from $61 to $97, and that with overtime, workers can bring home up to about $130 per month. Raising wages to $150, as has been requested by the union, “would bankrupt the garment industry,” he added.
Asked if Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister Hun Seng Ny is an investor in SL, Mr. Lee denied it, except for a contract with her Garuda security company.
Mr. Lee did not answer the question when asked if the long-standing demand by the striking workers for the removal of Meas Sotha, a factory shareholder, would be met.
Despite no apparent end in sight on the protracted standoff between workers and management, Mr. Lee remains optimistic about the future of the factory, which produces clothes for Gap and H&M.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said.
Ath Thorn, head of CCAWDU, said he did not believe the factory was suffering more than the workers.
“Workers are suffering because the company is not negotiating,” he said.
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