By  on February 21, 2012

Strikes by apparel industry workers in an industrial zone in the southeastern Cambodian province of Svay Rieng turned violent this week with a shooting on Monday that injured three people.

German sportswear label Puma confirmed that the incident took place Monday outside a factory run by Kaoway Sports Ltd., one of its suppliers. Puma summarized details of an initial investigation by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which had concluded that one worker was shot and in noncritical condition. Kaoway Sports is a member of GMAC.

On Tuesday, however, Puma said three female employees of Kaoway Sports had been injured in Monday’s events. It also said that one of them was hospitalized in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and that a Puma official was en route to visit her, along with representatives from the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian human rights group.

The Phnom Penh Post reported Tuesday that Buot Chinda, 21, was in critical condition after Monday’s shooting. The Phnom Penh Post and China’s Xinhua News Agency said the three workers were shot by an unidentified assailant who later fled the scene.

Eyewitness accounts differ as to whether the gunman was a factory security guard or dressed in police uniform. It wasn’t possible to verify these accounts and Cheath Khemara, a senior GMAC official who was in Svay Rieng, did not respond to attempts Tuesday to reach him for comment.

The women were protesting outside a factory run by Kaoway Sports, a Taiwanese-owned factory, when the shooting took place. According to press reports, a police official said the strikers set fire to tires and destroyed factory property, but that they only fired warning shots. Police are investigating the shooting incident.

Kaoway Sports, which makes footwear for Puma, is located in Svay Rieng’s Manhattan Special Economic Zone. Xinhua quoted the provincial governor and the area’s top police official saying that Kaoway workers were among 3,000 workers in the zone who had been protesting for higher wages and better working conditions since last week. The other strikers were said to work for Kingmaker Footwear and water sports apparel manufacturer Sheico, both Taiwanese-owned.

On Monday, Puma had denied that Kaoway workers were on strike, saying, “Factory management…agreed to the demands raised during the general labor unrest in the region, although Kaoway Sports workers had not participated in the demonstration.” On Tuesday, Puma said the strikes were not initiated by Kaoway employees. It said, “Factory management has evacuated all personnel from the compound to ensure the employees’ safety and workers have been sent home,” adding that the factory would remain closed until further notice and that it would host meetings Tuesday and today with nongovernmental organizations and trade unions to attempt to find a solution to the protests.

Puma is one of the larger clothing labels to source from Cambodia, and its operations in the Southeast Asian country had been under scrutiny since 800 workers at its suppliers’ factories fainted last April. After the mass faintings, it said that measures had been taken to improve workers’ conditions in its factories.

The Manhattan Special Economic Zone is located about 50 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital of neighboring Vietnam. According to its Web site, no export duty is charged for goods shipped to Europe and no import duty is levied on goods entering the zone. Companies that set up there are also exempt from business income tax for up to nine years. Many of the factories that have set up in the zone, which lists the availability of abundant and low-cost labor as one of its advantages, are of Chinese origin and are involved in textile or garment manufacturing.

The Cambodian apparel and footwear export industry was valued at $4 billion last year and contributes to around 80 percent of the country’s exports. The $66 a month minimum wage in Cambodia, where apparel industry workers are largely female, is almost a third lower than that of neighboring Vietnam’s $95. The apparel industry has been beset by several large-scale strikes over the past year.

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