Activists Blast Conviction of Union Leader

A Cambodian court for the first time convicted a union leader on criminal charges stemming from a strike on Thursday, in a ruling slam­med by labor activists and a US Embassy official.

Sok Vy, elected union leader at Kandal province’s Fortune Gar­ment factory, was sentenced to a 14-month suspended jail sentence for incitement and damaging property. The judge also sentenced Sok Vy, 25, to five months probation.

The conviction stems from a strike in June after which factory win­dows were broken.

“This case has the potential to have a more chilling effect on the Cambodian labor movement than even the killing of union leaders like Chea Vichea,” said US Em­bassy economic officer Mi­chael Keller, who was at court for the Thursday’s verdict.

“What happened today may have been legal but that certainly doesn’t make it right,” Keller said, adding that the ruling bypassed the 1997 Labor Law by convicting Sok Vy under an Untac anti-incitement law.

“The judge also opened the door for a civil suit in which the factory is asking for $300,000 from a worker who works in the washroom of a garment factory,” Keller said.

The case “has the potential to undermine Cambodia’s reputation for upholding labor standards, which is the only thing Cambo­dia’s garment industry has going for it right now,” he said. “From what I saw, the factory was able to win a conviction on very shaky evidence and with contradictory witnesses.”

Sok Vy said Thursday that the strike was peaceful. “More than 4,000 workers went on strike by their own idea,” Sok Vy said by telephone Thursday. “The glass of the factory’s windows was broken after we ended the strike.”

Sok Vy said he will appeal the decision.

“The court is really corrupt. They read out the verdict…and sentenced me…although they do not have enough evidence and witnesses,” Sok Vy said.

Chhorn Sokha, deputy president of the Cambodian Imperial Workers Democratic Unions, of which Fortune factory’s union is a part, defended Sok Vy on Thurs­day.

“Sok Vy has never incited workers before and after he was elected union leader,” Chhorn Sokha said.

Judge Kloth Pich and Pro­se­cutor Ly Lun turned off their phones Thursday.

Kandal provincial court’s chief prosecutor Chheng Path said Sok Vy was sentenced according to the law. “We are always neutral and have never been biased toward anyone,” he said.

Alonzo Suson of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity called the sentencing “a landmark case.”

“The biggest implication is that it will be used to intimidate un­ions in the future. This is a very clear travesty of justice,” Suson said.

Garment Manufactures Asso­ciation Secretary-General Ken Loo said he was seeking more details about the case before commenting on it.

Chuon Mom Thol, President of the CPP-backed Cambodian Un­ion Federation, supported the decision Thursday.

“When we have a demonstration and there is damage done we have to be held responsible be­fore the law,” he said. “That is why I advise my people when you go on strike to sit in the factory, do not go outside. Then outsiders may come and start the violence and we will be held responsible,” Chuon Mom Thol said.

But Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Workers Union of Cambodia, said the ruling is helping to return Cambodia to communist rule.

“The majority of the court is not neutral and independent…. The Kandal provincial court deci­sion…is to discourage union movements, especially the acts of speaking out against factory owners,” Chea Mony said.

Keller met with workers after the ruling and said the US Em­bassy will do its best to emphasize how the sentencing could damage Cam­bodia’s reputation. But he added that in the post-quota era, the US can do little to punish Cambodia.

“If Cambodia wants to be a country with the reputation for upholding labor standards it has to allow workers to have free representation,” Keller said.


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