A Busy Week at Court Expected for Union Leader Ath Thorn

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court will be seeing a lot of union leader Ath Thorn next week.

From next Monday through Thursday, it has summonsed the president of the country’s largest independent union to three rounds of questioning over three separate cases in which Mr. Thorn is accused of everything from embezzlement to committing aggravated acts of violence.

Mr. Thorn insists he is innocent of all charges and accuses the court of merely trying to distract him during a critical period in garment sector wage negotiations.

The summonses, all signed by Investigating Judge Chea Sokheng late last month, invite Mr. Thorn’s lawyer, Kim Socheat, to the court on September 15, 16 and 18.

In the cases, Mr. Thorn is accused of stealing $93,000 out of a 2013 labor dispute payout, inciting protesters at a Phnom Penh factory in September, and committing aggravated acts of violence and property damage during nationwide protests in January.

Mr. Socheat said he received all three summonses on Friday and would attend. Mr. Thorn said he would be there, too.

“I will go to answer questions in the three cases even though we are busy with our campaign for a $177 wage,” Mr. Thorn said.

The unions, factories and government are approaching the final stages of their negotiations over a scheduled raise to the minimum wage, currently set at $100. The final vote is scheduled to happen in October. The government and factories want a modest raise of $10. Unions are demanding $177, but said last week they were prepared to go as low as $150.

The sudden flurry of summonses, Mr. Thorn said, “is to prevent us from protesting or campaigning for $177 for the workers while we discuss the minimum wage.”

But he said the unions would press ahead with their campaign regardless, starting next week with leaflets informing workers of their labor rights and with bright green T-shirts emblazoned with the $177-wage demand.

Mr. Thorn may be getting the lion’s share of the court’s attention, but he is not the only union leader being sued over recent garment sector protests.

The municipal court last week began serving summonses to Mr. Thorn and six others, including at least four fellow union leaders, after recently charging them for their allegedly violent roles in the January protests.

Human Rights Watch condemned the new charges against the seven as politically motivated in a statement on Thursday. It was followed the next day by a similar rebuke from the Asian Floor Wage Alliance, which counts Mr. Thorn’s union as a member.

“We regard the charges as being part of the criminalization of internationally acknowledged legitimate activities of unions to deter them from pursuing the demand for better minimum wages in Cambodia,” the alliance says.

It calls on the government to unconditionally drop all charges, and on the international brands who buy from Cambodia’s factories to support the unions’ wage demands.

“They [the brands] must show their commitment by bearing their share in their supply chains so that garment workers in Cambodia are able to receive a minimally dignified wage.”

[email protected]

© 2014, All rights reserved.