Labor activists credited pressure from the US, a local legal aid center and a union federation—everybody but the judge—for the release Tuesday of two union leaders jailed for four months on charges of inciting a riot.
“Our release was not because of the judge’s helping the workers, but because of the effort of the union to put pressure on the judge,” said Khem Samoun, a leader of the Cambodian Federation of Independent Trade Unions at the Tommy Textile factory.
Released union leader Sok Bona credited Legal Aid of Cambodia and Minister of Labor Ith Sam Heng in addition to the union federation.
Judge Hing Thearith said he released the men at the request of Legal Aid lawyer Lean Chinda because he did not believe the men would flee. But he said “the case is not decided until the judge issues a verdict.” He added that he would hand down a verdict “soon.”
An US Embassy official said he was “pleased to see the two were released.” The jailing had “set a dangerous precedent” because it suggested factories could use the courts to silence union leaders, he said.
The leaders’ detention was among issues brought up by US labor officials who met with Cambodian labor ministry officials last week, the official said. Other issues brought up included the minimum wage, forced overtime and union registration, he said.
The US has told Cambodia it will set garment quotas depending on progress in upholding the labor law, which guarantees the right to unionize.
The men were arrested in July on charges of inciting a strike in March 2001, in which workers smashed windows and computers, and burned a car. An interministerial committee ruled a few months later that the strike was started by a rogue union, and that the men were not involved.
But Tommy Textile Manager Cheng-Lun Tseng wrote in a September letter to a manufacturing association that he went to the courts because the government was not taking the case seriously and because of “rumors” of an imminent outbreak of violence.
In September the US’ largest union federation, the AFL-CIO, and the US labor federation Unite both wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen urging him to arrange the men’s release.
“This hardly counts as a victory,” said Jason Judd of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which assists in union organizing in Cambodia. “These guys were in jail for four months for trying to form a union. They were there because of rumors from management, the whim of a judge and the indifference of government.”