sihanoukville town – In the last few months, physician Chey Sokhom treated enough men and women to know something was wrong at his workplace: Cambodian employees were suffering because of hard work and unpleasant conditions.
The doctor, who worked at the Yusin shoe factory for four months before he was recently fired, voiced his concerns Wednesday at a public forum on labor issues here.
“I saw the employer treat Cambodian workers very badly,” Chey Sokhom told nearly 100 participants at the forum. “I can’t stand to see these situations anymore.”
Manufacturing is an emerging industry in Sihanoukville, where about 20,000 workers are now employed by nine garment factories, four shoe factories and one beer company. With an increasing number of labor disputes, the Center for Social Development organized the public forum on labor issues to encourage dialogue among workers, employers and government officials.
Chey Sokhom said he witnessed about 10 Yusin workers falling down every night and being brought to his clinic for treatment during his stint as an in-house doctor. He said there was little he could do for them without adequate medical equipment and proper medicine.
“The factory never ever supplied enough medicine. How could I help workers without medicine?” he asked, adding that he often spent his own money to treat workers.
Chey Sokhom said employees at his factory, who began their shifts in the morning, were often forced to work overtime until 11 pm. Those workers were not well fed and often fainted due to a combination of malnutrition and hard work, Chey Sokhom said.
Sok Khun, director of administration for Yusin, refuted the doctor’s story Thursday. “If workers are seriously sick, we immediately send them to Chun Minh Hospital,” he said. “We contact this hospital to treat workers.”
Sok Khun acknowledged the company does not always pay workers overtime, but said Yusin instead gives workers three to four meals daily.
Testimony of workers echoed Chey Sokhom’s observations. Many said they are often forced to work more than 12 hours without enough overtime pay. They said their workplaces are filled with chemical odors and their salaries would be cut if they take a leave.
While workers were vocal in telling their stories, only one factory representative stood up to participate in the debate.
Liv Chi Yean, administrative chief of the Taiwanese-owned New Star shoe factory, which employs 1,700 workers, said employees do not respect the labor law, organize strikes without notifying the management in advance and take leave without permission. He said the factory cares about its workers, providing free accommodations and meals.
“I’m like your father. Please come to talk to me, if you have problems,” Liv Chi Yean said. “Having demonstrations might make workers lose in the end. New foreign investors would stop coming to Cambodia, and then there would be no jobs for Cambodian people.”
Government officials at the forum said the manufacturing sector has become a crucial aspect in developing the local economy.
“Shoe factories and garment factories are very important to us to develop Sihanoukville,” said Sok Serey, a labor department official. “I agree that employers do not respect the labor law well, while workers do not understand labor rights stated in the law.”
He said middle management often lacks knowledge of the law, and many workers consider their jobs as temporary and do not care about labor rights.
Other government officials and representatives from the National Assembly and Senate said more dialogue is needed between workers and management.
The first person to speak at the forum was a woman who said her daughter became sick because she was not able to go to the bathroom freely during her working hours. And now the money her daughter earned is gone, used up for her medical treatment.
“It is happening not only to my daughter but others as well,” the mother said. “The factory should provide better working conditions.”
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