Industry Still on Edge After Deadly Violence in Cambodia

Protests over wages resulted in the deaths of at least four workers and scores of injuries Friday following a crackdown by the military police.

with contributions from Cheng Sokhorng
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The situation in Cambodia’s apparel industry remained tense Sunday after protests over wages resulted in the deaths of at least four workers and scores of injuries Friday following a crackdown by the military police.

This story first appeared in the January 6, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Factories were expected to restart production today as unions urged workers to return to work to avoid further violence. Workers are protesting against the government’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $100 a month, demanding it be increased to $160 monthly.

Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said Sunday that the deaths Friday and the strong show of force from the government over the weekend has frightened the workers, and his union is urging all its members to return to work while the unions lobby for international support for a wage raise.

“There is so much blood spilled by the police and we don’t want to confront with the violent people anymore,” Kong said. “We will not stop fighting [for a wage increase] but we will go back to work for some time and we will try to look for international support and diplomatic support.”

“We want the government and employers to sit down at the negotiation table,” he said, adding that, despite his union’s stance, they are unable to guarantee the workers would return as many had fled Phnom Penh in fear.

Albert Tan, treasurer of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, confirmed Sunday that the factories will resume work, but declined to comment on whether the manufacturers would resume negotiations.

“The wage has to be decided by the government,” he said. “Most of the factories will open because everyone is behind schedule already.”

Security forces opened fire on protesting garment workers here Friday, killing at least four people and injuring at least 26, according to a military police spokesman.

The violence erupted during a demonstration at Canadia Industrial Park, coming after more than a week of peaceful protests and demonstrations by workers over wages.

Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, said they received information from hospitals around the city about the dead and injured victims.

“Through the hospitals’ information, we’ve heard that 26 were injured and four people died,” Tito said, declining to comment on how many of the victims injured were garment workers.

Eleven people were arrested and will face criminal charges. Though Tito claimed that security forces did not fire at the protesting workers, he also defended their actions.

“The protesters were going to create serious chaos so we needed to crack down on them in order to protect social security and public property,” he said. Tito added that security forces suffered only mild injuries.

Demonstrations by about 2,000 workers started at the industrial park early Friday morning, and hundreds of armed security forces were deployed to the area, which is lined with garment factories. Tensions have been rising since Thursday, when garment workers blocked two major national roads leading into the capital city, and protested in front of factories there. The government then deployed Brigade 911 Airborne unit, an elite military battalion, whose officers started beating protesters with batons and steel pipes, according to local news reports. At least 15 people were injured and detained on Thursday, and eight of them were garment workers.

Angered by the authorities’ use of force the day before, workers on Friday retaliated by throwing Molotov cocktails at the security forces gathered there, burning tires and flinging rocks to damage the factories. Eyewitness accounts said the military police then fired live ammunition and started pummeling protesters.

Cambodia is no stranger to industrial action. The country’s more than 400 exporting factories have seen more than 130 protests this year, according to recorded figures from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. The unrest is not reflected in garment exports, which surpassed $5 billion this year, making it the country’s most profitable sector.

Swedish clothing giant H&M — which sources from more than 30 factories in the country — condemned Friday’s violence and urged that unions and manufacturers continue wage negotiations.

“We strongly distance ourselves against all kinds of violence and we sincerely hope that this conflict is resolved soon and that peaceful wage negotiations in good faith and with the endorsement of all key parties can commence,” Karin Bringevall, H&M’s press officer, said by e-mail, adding that the retailer remains committed to sourcing from Cambodia despite this deadly turn of events.

Gap Inc., another major buyer from the country’s industry, also came out on Saturday against the violence perpetrated by the government’s forces against workers.

“We are very concerned about the security and safety of Cambodian garment workers,” Laura Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for Gap, said in an e-mail. “We strongly oppose any form of violence and urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to drive negotiations among stakeholders to peacefully resolve this dispute.”

On Saturday, hundreds of armed military police officers continued patrolling the area where the shooting happened, while workers living in the housing quarters of the industrial park cleared out and returned to their home provinces out of fear. Meanwhile, in central Phnom Penh at Freedom Park — a designated “democracy square” for civilians to protest — armed military police and plainclothes militia began chasing out supporters of the opposition party who were camped there. City Hall then said that no demonstrations will be tolerated, and that the opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha will be called into court for questioning on Jan. 14 over possible charges of criminal incitement, according to local news reports.

There was supposed to be a huge CNRP demonstration planned for Sunday, but the party called it off, citing worries of violence. Currently, there is an uneasy calm throughout the city. No gathering, demonstrations or protests have been held, but the security forces are still patrolling the streets today in large numbers.

Many of the victims of Friday’s violence were transported to Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where doctors and nurses struggled under pressure to treat an onslaught of people who suffered bullet wounds. Hospital staff declined to give exact figures of the dead and wounded, but human rights observers canvassed the capital’s hospitals and gave a total tally of at least four confirmed dead and at least 38 wounded.

Worried family members of protesting workers gathered outside the morgue of the hospital to try to identify the three dead bodies transported there. By late afternoon, the names of the three dead emerged — Peng Kosal, 24; Yean Rithy, 26, and Komg Ravy, 25. Khim Phally, 26, died in the emergency room from a chest wound. All four men were garment workers.

Garment worker Prom Phearum, 22, suffered a bullet wound to his right calf, which was wrapped in gauze. He said he joined the protest at around 10 a.m. because as a worker at a factory in the industrial zone, he wanted higher wages. Phearum currently takes home about $110 a month after working overtime daily at a dress factory.

“When I was shot on my right leg, I tried to flee and the other workers helped me to get out. If they didn’t do that, I would have been beaten,” Phearum said, adding that he was not being violent and was simply shouting for a wage increase. “The authorities had shot us with the intention to kill us,” he alleged.

Angered by the authorities’ action, Phearum said he would continue protesting for $160 after he has recovered.

Sam Oum, 22, a worker in the industrial park who suffered a bullet that entered and exited his right shoulder, expressed similar resolve after witnessing workers beaten up by security forces. He claimed that he was not rioting.

“I am very shocked that the authorities acted in this way,” Oum said. “I saw with my own eyes that garment workers were beaten. Their suffering makes me feel stronger that I should continue protesting.”

Many bystanders were also injured during the melee, including students and drivers. Workers who claimed they were not participating in the protest suffered injuries, including Vorn Srey Oeun, 19, who suffered a bullet wound to her right upper thigh while cooking lunch in her rental room located in the industrial park.

Tan, GMAC’s treasurer, said the rioting protesters provoked the deadly force from the police.

“If there is no violence, then I don’t think the police would have shot them. If there is violence that threatens them and endangers them, then of course any police officer would use their arms to stop the violence,” Tan said.

Tan added that GMAC’s stance remains that the manufacturers will not take part in any wage negotiations if the industrial unrest continues, which he said is hurting the garment sector.

“The sourcing will change. Once it changes, there are other areas where buyers can find producers and they will just keep [Cambodia] in the back of their books. We will not be their first choice,” Tan said.

Chan Soveth, Adhoc’s human rights head monitor, said all sides have lost control of the people and he urged for negotiations between the unions, manufacturers and the government.

“I think that if the authorities and the unions cannot find a solution, something more serious will happen,” he said. “[The government] should try to get people to negotiate peacefully. The unions should encourage the workers to calm down.”

Earlier in the day, Mu Sochua, a lawmaker-elect for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, condemned the use of force against the workers. The opposition party has been staging daily demonstrations to protest the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and their turnout numbers were bolstered by protesting workers last week.

“It is never OK to use lethal force on civilians, especially against workers who are on strike. They were just striking,” Sochua said.

Prak Chanthoeun, director-general of the Labor Conflict Committee at the Ministry of Labor, said the government is urging the workers “not to listen or be incited by the CNRP.”

“That is our strategy. We are also trying to set up a discussion on Jan. 8 between the factories and unions to find a new solution,” Chanthoeun said.

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