Toting automatic weapons, police raided a Phnom Penh garment factory Saturday morning and rescued 51 foreign workers who were held against their will and severely underpaid, authorities and rights workers said this week.
The workers—34 Vietnamese and 17 Chinese—said they had been lured to Cambodia by promises they would be paid $100 per month for eight hours of work a day. But most of them said that after three months they were only paid around $150, and were not allowed to leave the factory.
“We pleaded with the owner to let us go back to Vietnam,” said 23-year-old Nguyen Thi Vinh, who said she worked 14 to 17 hours per day.
Ngeth Sarath, municipal court prosecutor, said Thursday that the court issued a warrant to search the factory based on a complaint by the local rights group Licadho and an initial police investigation.
“[The police] found evidence that the labor law had been broken and that there was illegal trafficking of humans, so…I ordered the warrant for a search,” Ngeth Sarath said. He said further legal action would be taken against factory management, “as we collect hard evidence from the police.”
Philip Chang, director of the factory, GT Garment (Cambodia) Co Ltd, called the situation a “misunderstanding.”
Chang said in an interview Wednesday at his factory that he had no idea what the workers had been promised, but it was company policy to withhold $100 as a deposit to cover costs such as food and transportation. He denied that the workers were prevented from leaving the factory.
“I’m a very honest person,” said Chang. “If I make a mistake, I say I’m sorry.”
The allegations, if they are true, could represent one of the most extreme cases yet of worker abuse in Cambodia’s garment industry.
Cambodia already is being criticized by labor and rights officials for permitting abusive labor practices. At stake is the future prosperity of the country’s fastest growing industry.
The US, the largest importer of Cambodian garments, has tied quotas to labor standards, and inadequate conditions already have cost Cambodia’s garment industry to lose out on a full export quota bonus.
Ngeth Sarath said the workers had no passports. But Chang said he held onto the Chinese passports to make it easy for him to renew the workers’ visas. He said all foreign employees had proper work permits.
Lek Vannak, municipal judicial police chief, said he deployed 20 police to raid the factory, and that the workers seemed happy the police intervened. All of them were processed for police records, but were not detained, he said.
Licadho received a tip from a former factory employee that the workers were being held and not paid, said Eva Galabru, Licadho director.
“Considering that these people were illegally confined, there are a number of human rights abuses,” Galabru said.
A soft-spoken Nguyen Thi Vinh recounted her story Wednesday from a Phnom Penh safe house as many of her companions gathered around, adding details.
She said she was one of the first foreign workers to arrive at GT, with a group of six women and one man, on November 17.
She said she previously was working a southern Vietnam garment factory, earning $100 per month for 11 hours per day of work.
So when word spread through her factory that there were employers in Cambodia looking for skilled workers who would be paid $100 per month for just eight hours of work per day, plus overtime, she decided to go with seven others. The eight workers slipped across the border to meet a contact named “Mr Giang,” who took them the rest of the way to the factory, she said.
But she said she soon found herself sewing clothes 14 to 17 hours per day. For the entire month of December, she said she worked close to 260 hours of overtime. But she said her total pay for the month was only $50.
The workers said they lived in cramped rooms with small fans and no mosquito nets, with little water to bathe with or drink.
Vietnamese workers said they were told that if they left, they would be arrested, while Chinese workers said through translators that their passports were withheld by the company, preventing them from leaving.
The workers made no plans to escape, Nguyen Thi Vinh said, because “we don’t know Cambodia…When the police came, we were so delighted, some of us cried.”
Inside the newly built GT factory on Wednesday, sewing machines manned by nearly 500 Cambodian workers hummed in unison.
Conditions at the factory are good, Chang said, pointing out clean bathrooms with basins full of water and air-conditioned rooms on the second floor where he said the Vietnamese and Chinese workers slept.
Chang said he had only hired foreign workers to improve the quality and output of his product, and had hired them through a “local friend.”
He described the police raid “like a war,” where police kicked in doors, yelled and waved their guns.
“We disagree with the police tactics,” said He En Jai, vice president of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, which represents factory management. “If police can do it in this case, they can do it to any factory.”
Galabru of Licadho blamed the government in part for failing to rescue the workers earlier.
“The bottom line in this case is that there was complicity by the authorities,” she said, charging that immigration allowed the workers to cross the border, and government labor inspectors failed in their job to find the detained workers.
Hut Chanty, deputy director of labor inspection at the Ministry of Labor, said Thursday he thought the case involved illegal workers, making it the responsibility of the Interior Ministry. “My department doesn’t know about that,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)