Thousands of garment workers descended on City Hall on Thursday morning to protest the dismissal of more than 700 employees for striking over working conditions at two SL Garment factories, forcing tense afternoon negotiations between the city’s governor, company owners and worker unions that resulted in the successful reinstatement of all dismissed employees, officials said.
The Singapore-owned company, which makes clothes for U.S. brands Levi’s and Gap at two plants in Phnom Penh, fired the 720 workers on Wednesday and suspended more than 5,000 others following a two-week strike to demand higher wages, a lunch stipend and the end of intimidation by military police officers introduced as security by a new adviser, Meas Sotha, to the SL factories.
After negotiations ended about 5 p.m., City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that it had been agreed the hundreds of sacked workers and those served suspensions would be allowed to return to their jobs as of this morning.
“After governor Pa Socheatvong negotiated with representatives of SL Garment company, the factory has accepted that the 700 workers who had been fired can now return to work as normal,” Mr. Dimanche said.
“We are arbitrators in this case and continue to encourage the two parties to get closer so they can resolve the rest of the problems in a way that both parties find acceptable.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, who took part in the negotiations, said that in addition to reinstating the workers, the company—which had threatened to close its factories in Cambodia and relocate its business elsewhere—had also agreed to end Mr. Sotha’s role as an adviser and to discontinue the use of military police officers as factory guards.
“Negotiations were difficult, but the company will not close its factories here and if they do, it will be responsible to compensate all its employees under the labor law,” Mr. Thorn said.
“We hope that this case will be set as an example to deal with any other industry disputes that arise,” he said, adding that City Hall had established a small committee to monitor operations at the factory and would hold further negotiations on Monday to discuss concerns including minimum wage demands.
As the loudspeakers blasted calls for justice and the colorful throngs of workers staged a sit-down protest blocking traffic on Monivong Boulevard, a few meters away in the Raffles le Royal Hotel, Cambodia’s biggest international garment brands—including Gap, Levis and H&M—gathered for the second day of the yearly buyer’s forum.
When asked on the sidelines of the meeting about the mass protest by workers from SL Garment Processing, Jonah Wigerhall, H&M sustainability project leader, referred all questions to his firm’s public relations department in Sweden.
Buth Bunchhean, legal officer for the Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said going by thumbprints collected for a petition delivered to City Hall, some 6,000 workers had joined the protest Thursday—which had an unusually light police presence despite security preparation ahead of Saturday’s opposition demonstration.
“Before the election, the authorities often cracked down on protesters but this time they allowed so many workers to carry out their protest smoothly and we have rarely seen this kind of move,” Mr. Bunchhean said, adding he thought the government used a light touch as it might be worried about disgruntled factory workers joining the CNRP planned “peace” rally on Saturday.