58 Workers Arrested, Freed Over Protests At Bavet SEZs

Fifty-eight protesting workers from the Tai Seng special economic zone (SEZ) in Bavet City were arrested on Monday morning and released in the evening after agreeing not to use violence or damage property in the future, authorities said, the latest development in a bout of unrest that began last week.

About 200 workers walked off the job shortly after arriving at factories in the Tai Seng SEZ and made their way to the nearby Manhattan SEZ at 9 a.m., but were blocked by riot police, officials said. Some workers were arrested at that point, but the majority were detained after the mob—some members armed with sticks and clubs—attempted to enter the Manhattan SEZ through marshland behind it.

Workers are guarded by military police after being arrested outside the Manhattan SEZ in Bavet City on Monday morning. (Licadho)
Workers are guarded by military police after being arrested outside the Manhattan SEZ in Bavet City on Monday morning. (Licadho)

“We surrounded them while they were trying to get through the body of water to approach the factories in the zone,” said deputy provincial governor Hou Rattanak. “If we did not take action, they would have destroyed the factories.”

Sous Sarin, chief of the provincial police’s minor crimes bureau, said 500 security personnel were deployed around the SEZs on Monday.

Authorities said there had been some damage caused by the protesters—as was the case last week when factory windows were broken, leading to the arrest of four workers —and that those arrested on Monday were released on the condition that they cease violent activity.

“After educating them and asking them to sign an agreement not to use violence and damage the property of other people in the future, we let their parents or guardians take them back home,” said provincial military police commander Ser Vuthy.

The protests began midway through last week, with unions denying involvement and workers making various demands related to the minimum wage in garment factories, which currently stands at $128 per month and is set to rise to $140 at the start of 2016.

After workers walked off the job at the Kingmaker factory on Wednesday, their protests spread around the Manhattan SEZ and then across the road to the Tai Seng SEZ. Both were shut down for the day and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) claimed that millions of dollars had been lost.

Mao Kosal, operations manager at the Tai Seng SEZ, said that about 70 percent of the approximately 10,000 workers employed in the zone were working as usual on Monday. Men Chivoan, administration manager at the Manhattan SEZ, said that of some 23,000 workers there, only about 400 were absent on Monday.

Prominent union leaders in Bavet City say they are not behind the latest labor strife to hit an area that has been plagued by poor industrial relations in recent years. GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo, however, said the characteristics of the current unrest suggested that the workers were organized.

“That’s what they all say—they say it’s an uprising of the workers, we hear that all the time,” Mr. Loo said.

“I am convinced that there must be someone behind this. It is highly unlikely that this is a spontaneous event—it is not easy to organize 40 factories and the way it unfolded, it looks like there is a lot of organization, especially today’s actions,” he added.

Mr. Loo repeated claims that the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, headed by Pav Sina, was behind large-scale strikes in Bavet City last year, but clarified that he was not accusing Mr. Sina of involvement this time around.

“We don’t know who, or why, but it must be someone,” he said.

Mr. Loo, whose association represents the country’s exporting garment factories, said that with the wave of protests having taken on a criminal nature, it was unlikely that any union would emerge to represent the involved workers.

“Anyone who comes forward with demands now will be seen as taking responsibility for the whole thing,” he said. “At this point, there is no negotiation whatsoever.”

William Conklin, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, said the Bavet City economic zones were suffering the consequences of their success in “keeping unions out.”

“It is somewhat analogous to the strike situation in Vietnam the past 10 years,” he said.

“Striking without leadership from a union, they go on for days because nobody wants to be identified as the leader. The strikes in Vietnam were quite successful: They got parts of what they want, but right now, we aren’t clear about what is being negotiated or if the employers are prepared to give any more.”

Mr. Conklin said the factories would be better served by allowing unions to operate freely.

“They want to avoid multiplicity of unions in factories, but the flipside is that when there is unrest, they have no one to negotiate with,” he said.

The four workers arrested last week—Van Vichet, 24; Paldy Somalyda, 27; Sok Kong, 28; and Chheng Sopha, 35—were charged at the Svay Rieng Provincial Court on Sunday with aggravated violence, aggravated intentional damage and incite- ment to commit a crime, according to Tep Phalla, the court’s chief of administration. Together, the crimes carry up to 12 years in prison.

“The judge issued an order to send them to prison for pretrial detention,” Mr. Phalla said.

Sary Chakrya, a lawyer from the Cambodian Legal Education Center, which closely monitors labor rights, said she went to Bavet City on Monday to meet the families of those detained with the intention of representing them in court.

Mr. Chakrya said she successfully met with two families, and gained power of attorney in both cases, and would return on Wednesday to meet the other two and then notify the court.

“I can’t say anything about the case yet because I dont have the documents from the court so I don’t have clear information,” she said. “I will apply with the court on Wednesday and then I will know more.”

blomberg@cambodiadaily.com, sothear@cambodiadaily.com

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