By  on March 30, 2012

Protests by garment industry workers in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh turned violent this week as at least three women were attacked, allegedly by security forces, workers' rights advocates said.

According to Mouen Tola, head of the Labor Program Unit at the Community Legal Education Centre, the three women were members of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Unions (C.CAWDU), the largest union at Win Shingtex, a Hong Kong-owned factory, and were marching from their factory to the Ministry of Labour. The incident occurred Tuesday. Local media have reported that Win Shingtex produces apparel for J.C. Penney Co Inc. A J.C. Penney spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

"Three women [were attacked while marching] on the road, though only one was seriously injured," said Tola in a phone interview. "She was beaten on her face and chest and sent to a clinic." He said that eyewitnesses at the scene said that the police carried out the attacks.

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Win Shingtex management could not be reached for comment but Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, of which Win Shingtex is a member, said in an email that the tussle occurred outside the factory and not outside the Ministry of Labour. He did not comment further.

A spokesman at the Cambodian government's Office of the Council of Ministers did not respond to a request to comment although a senior police official told the Phnom Penh Post that his officers did not beat up striking workers.

"A worker had blood flowing from her nose because it was too hot," he was quoted as saying. The official added that workers were not allowed to protest in the city center ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations' summit that would take place there next week.

The scuffle follows almost a year of negotiations between Win Shingtex and C.CAWDU, which had been hoping to secure a collective bargaining agreement with the factory.

"If you're the majority [union], there is a legal right to have a collective bargaining agreement," said Dave Walsh, Cambodia director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, a worker's rights group, in a phone interview. "Management stalled these negotiations and that was very frustrating. The peaceful protest that occurred was the only avenue." C.CAWDU represents more than 50 percent of the workers at the factory.

The striking workers returned to work on Wednesday when factory management made some concessions and agreed to pay workers a transport subsidy and a regular attendance bonus, Tola said. He added that negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement would continue at a later date.

Over the past year, Cambodia's $4 billion garment and footwear export industry has been beleaguered by strikes that have occasionally turned violent as workers clash with management and a semi-authoritarian government in a bid for higher wages and better working conditions.

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