Labor Minister Says Solution to Bavet Strike in the Works

On the sidelines of a government event marking International Labor Day, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Thursday blamed recent strikes in Bavet City on unnamed provocateurs, but said efforts were underway to resolve the dispute.

He also said that a government-ordered shutdown of the 30-plus factories—meant to quell the escalating violence and scheduled to end Thursday—could be prolonged.

In his speech to some 2,000 garment workers on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island, Mr. Sam Heng said conditions for workers and unions in Cambodia were “better than ever in history” and that the country’s 960 garment factories were now providing jobs for 628,166 people.

Asked afterward about the strikes in Bavet, the minister said the government was trying to get the factories back up and running.

The government ordered a three-day shutdown of the factories on Tuesday after the escalating strikes turned violent, with mobs of stone-throwing workers attacking some factories. The strike started after workers heard that one factory had recently given its employees a $50 bonus and started demanding the same deal for themselves. The workers say the factory paid the bonus because its employees kept a promise to not strike over the past few months; the factories say it was paid because the employees met their production target.

“We are trying to resolve the situation between the employees and the employers and find a way to restart work,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “Now I am asking them to submit their requests to the Arbitration Council.”

Asked when the government might give the Bavet factories the green light to reopen, however, the minister declined to give a firm date.

“We will try to open the factories as soon as possible,” he said.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has blamed the Collective Union of Movement of Workers and its president, Pav Sina, of inciting the strikes and said the union leaders should bear all the costs incurred by employers and employees alike, including lost wages.

Mr. Sina has consistently denied the claim, and Thursday insisted that the government should pay the workers for the days it ordered the factories shut.

“The government must be responsible because it ordered all the factories in Bavet City to suspend work because it was worried the strike would get bigger and bigger,” he said.

If the workers are not paid for those days whenever the factories do reopen, he predicted that the strike would surely go on.

Vong Sovann, however, deputy director of the Labor Ministry’s general department of labor conflict, said pay for those days was out of the question.

Neither the government nor the factories would be paying, he said, “because they are holding an illegal strike, and if we did not close the factories the destruction would have gotten serious.”

Also in Svay Rieng, the provincial court Thursday charged a garment worker who took part in the Bavet City strikes on Monday for allegedly breaking the windows of some factories and a luxury car belonging the a factory administrator.

Provincial court prosecutor Hing Bunchea said Chan Sarith, 21, was charged Thursday with intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances.

“We charged him this morning…and now he is in pretrial detention at the provincial prison,” he said.

Nouth Bopinnaroath, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said his group had agreed to provide Mr. Sarith with free legal counsel.

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