PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Workers gathering peacefully to lobby for higher salaries on Labor Day here Thursday were met with violence from authorities wielding sticks and electric batons to disperse a demonstration in the city’s center.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

On May Day, the country’s independent unions typically assemble for a rally in Freedom Park, which was created as a place for Cambodians to express themselves. This year’s celebrations were marred by the government’s ban on assembly since early January.

Half a world away, two Cambodian labor leaders met with U.S. government, civil society and union officials in Washington to outline the violence against women garment workers, in the hopes it will raise awareness and potentially put pressure on the Cambodian government to uphold workers’ rights.

The ban on assembly came after government security forces opened fire and killed five workers during a protest in a Phnom Penh industrial park on Jan. 3. A crowd of workers was asking for higher wages. Since then, the authorities have cracked down on Freedom Park: Any public gatherings there are immediately dispersed by truncheon-wielding individuals dressed in unmarked clothing.

The unions’ request to hold a Labor Day rally there was denied, and workers attempting to gather Thursday morning were greeted with razor-wire barricades and metal barriers nearly seven feet tall blocking it off. Around 10:30 a.m., some 200 government security forces descended on the area, the majority carrying electric batons and large sticks. Security forces chased after workers, bystanders and journalists, and beat people randomly and without provocation. Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for local rights group Licadho, said at least five people suffered injuries from the random beatings.

However, Long Dimanche, a municipal spokesman, said, “We did not injure anyone or arrest any workers over this today,” adding that gatherings in Freedom Park are prohibited as the authorities are “investigating the park’s violent past.”

Unions later tried to hold a march in front of the country’s National Assembly to submit a petition listing their demands. Authorities stopped them again, building barricades around the surrounding streets. The petition asks that the 23 workers, unionists and bystanders arrested during protests for higher wages be freed; for a hike in the monthly minimum wage to $160 from $100, and for the arrest of those authorities responsible for perpetrating violence against workers.

“We only get one day free in the year to demand what we want, but the authorities won’t even let us do that,” said Chuon Sina, a 25-year-old worker who was trying to march to the National Assembly. “It’s a big disappointment.”

At the site of the Jan. 3 shooting, opposition leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, visited with the families of the five workers who were shot and killed, and held a Buddhist ceremony. They later made a brief appearance near Freedom Park before returning to the party’s headquarters to speak to garment workers.

Earlier in the morning, Huot Ran, a 36-year-old garment worker, had inserted lotus flowers between the barbed-wire barricades blocking Freedom Park as a peace offering to the helmeted officers. As a garment worker for 10 years, Ran wanted to support the unions to get a higher salary, but said he was disappointed with how the authorities have approached Labor Day.

“We are only here with lotus flowers and the police welcome us with razor wires and fences. It is very threatening,” she said, before sprinting away from the horde of security forces wielding sticks.

In Washington, Tola Moeun, director of Labor Programs for the Community Legal Education Center in Cambodia, and Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, who have been ardent advocates for higher wages and an end to antiunion repression in the garment industry, attended a conference on violence against women in the apparel industry and met with officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In an interview with WWD, Moeun said his top priorities in raising awareness of the issues are to pressure the Cambodian government to release the 21 workers who were detained in early January during the mass strikes; to enlist the help of Western brands and officials to pressure the government to increase the minimum wage; to end short-term contracts that workers sign, and to allow for collective bargaining and freedom of association.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said the other objective of their visit was to tell Yang’s story.

“She is under a lot of pressure and has been threatened in the past,” Gearhart said. “We are looking to shed some light on stories of Sophorn and other women worker-leaders like her,” whom, she noted, have had their right to organize be “violently repressed.”

Yang said in the interview through Moeun that she formerly worked as a garment worker herself from 1996 to 2000. As president of CATU, she currently represents 8,000 members in 21 garment factories. She said she has been targeted by local garment factories for her advocacy on the minimum wage and is facing five lawsuits against her.

Asked if conditions have improved with all of the international attention, Yang said: “Before, even though wages were low [when she worked in the industry], it was still compatible with the cost of living. But now it is quite hard to survive with the minimum wage and the freedom to organize a trade union is much more depressed now.”

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