Hundreds of striking garment factory workers blocked National Route 5 in Kandal province on Wednesday in protest of the arrest of three union leaders who were accused by court officials of inciting workers not to work overtime.
The arrests on Tuesday were the third recent case involving criminal charges being leveled against union leaders. The trend was criticized Wednesday by industry experts who expressed concern that the court system is being used to circumvent the Arbitration Council’s process of labor dispute resolution.
Free Trade Union representatives Khlork Samnang, 28, Korn Siny, 22, and Kim Sarith, 24, were arrested and accused of inciting workers to leave work before the 4 pm quitting time, Tai Yar factory manager Lim Chea said Wednesday.
“Those union leaders incited workers to stop working 10 minutes to 4 on April 12,” Lim Chea said, adding that when workers opted to work overtime, the workers who were refusing to work overtime pushed an alarm bell that caused chaos on the factory floor.
“Some bad workers stole clothes at that time, which is why the factory lost much money,” he said.
Tai Yar striker Seau Sitha said on Wednesday that workers were forced to work overtime for two weeks prior to the Khmer New Year.
Following the intervention of Ponhea Leu district Governor Tep Sothy, the three union leaders were released from police custody on Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
“This morning the emergency problem of the blockade of Route 5 was resolved by the written promises of the district governor that the leaders could be released,” said Kong Pharith, investigator for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.
Kong Pharith said that management had created a demanding overtime schedule for the week leading up to Khmer New Year without consulting workers.
The ACILS was concerned about the series of court cases, which started with the sentencing earlier this year to a suspended prison term of Fortune Garment union leader Sok Vy for leading a strike which resulted in damage to windows and water hose.
“Now that factories have the model of the Fortune Case. They have studied it and are following it by going directly to the courts,” he said. “They try to use the criminal code to undermine the labor law.”
According to the Labor Law, even if there is no violence, the courts have the power to declare a strike action legal or illegal. Strikers do not need to obtain permission to strike, but they must give notice and follow the proper procedures.
“The problems arise in emergencies like today and the workers are so angry that there is no time for notification,” Kong Pharith said.
Michael Keller, the chief economic officer at US Embassy, said he was concerned that the verdicts and arrests in Kandal will hurt the fragile garment industry.
“The tendency we have seen in the last couple of months, where factories are avoiding the process the Cambodian government has deliberately and carefully set up for the negotiation and resolution of disputes and to quickly turn to criminal courts, could have a serious impact on the garment industry,” he said.
Michael Lerner, a legal adviser to the Arbitration Council, said circumventing the arbitration system is a lose-lose proposition for everyone in the industry.
The 15-day non-binding Arbitration Council process has a success rate of about 70 percent, he said, an indication that it can quickly resolve conflicts before workers loose pay and managers miss production targets.
Garment Manufacturers Association Secretary General Ken Loo said on Wednesday that, as a whole, factories are not seeking resolution in criminal courts instead of conciliation under supervision of the Labor Ministry or arbitration.
“We have had disputes go into the courts before, so I would not conclude that this is a trend,” he said.
But, he said, many factories are under pressure.
“Factories are being forced to deal with labor disputes on a more frequent basis,” he said. “We look forward to the Labor Ministry being able to resolve disputes more efficiently.”
“We are also looking for is a clearer definition of how unions can be formed, of the rights and responsibilities of unions,” he said.