As Strikers Return to Work, Factories Sue Garment Unions

As garment workers continued to return to their factories Wednesday after several days of strikes that turned deadly last week, some of their employers have wasted no time in suing the unions behind the strikes, demanding compensation.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court chief clerk Prak Savouth said five factories had already lodged complaints against the unions, but would not say which factories filed the suits or which unions had been targeted for legal action.

“We received complaints from five factories,” he said, before referring further questions to Khieu Sambo, a lawyer for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC).

Mr. Sambo confirmed that factory owners had lodged complaints, but declined to provide details.

On Tuesday, GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said lawsuits might target all six of the nongovernment-aligned unions it has already publicly accused of inciting violence among the striking garment workers. Those protests peaked when military police shot into crowds of stone-throwing protesters outside a Phnom Penh factory on Friday, killing five and wounding more than 40. GMAC chairman Van Sou

Ieng said he was not familiar with the details of the lawsuits, but estimated that 50 or more factories were availing of his association’s lawyers to sue the six unions, and that more could join the suits.

He confirmed that the factories were demanding compensation but would not say how much. He also declined to name the factories that had filed lawsuits, citing GMAC policy.

GMAC claims that the labor unrest has cost its members some $200 million in lost sales and accuses the protests of inflicting significant damage on their properties, although it has so far declined to put a dollar figure to the damage.

The municipal court has summoned CCAWDU president Ath Thon—one of the six unions leaders singled out by GMAC— for questioning on Tuesday over allegations that he incited protesting workers to destroy property, municipal court deputy prosecutor Heang Sopheak said Wednesday. Fellow union leader Rong Chhun has also been summoned for questioning on the same day, along with political opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.

Mr. Thon said he was aware of neither the lawsuits from the factories against the unions, nor the court summons for him.

He said he would honor the summons if he received it, but rebuked the factories for suing the unions.

“It’s not fair because…we come to the assistance of the workers, and there is the right to strike,” he said. “The workers start to strike because of the low wages. How can the workers work on such low wages? They should work until they die?”

Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia, another of the unions targeted by GMAC, said she had not received notice of a lawsuit from the court either.

She denied that unions incited any violence, and said arresting her or the other union leaders would not stop their members from returning to the streets.

“I hope the government will not let the court arrest the union leaders, because it will be useless,” she said. “The government thinks that after the court arrests the union leaders there will be no more protests, but the protests will continue.”

Unless the government and factories accept their wage demand, the unions have vowed to go back on strike but won’t say when.

For now, the strikes and protests appear to be over. GMAC’s Mr. Sou Ieng said 90 percent of the industry’s 600,000 workers were back on the job yesterday. Mr. Thon, of CCAWDU, said anywhere from 60 percent to 100 percent of workers were back, depending on the city or province.

But, at the Canadia Industrial Park, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district where military police shot dead five garment strikers and wounded dozens of others on Friday, attendance Wednesday was far lower.

Just behind the gate, which still showed the battle scars from Friday’s fracas, five armed soldiers lounged in the shade. Toun Reaksmey, an employee of the International Fashion Royal factory, made her way along an empty avenue of cookie-cutter factory buildings.

She said only about 100 of her factory’s roughly 1,000 workers were back as of Wednesday.

Ms. Reaksmey said she joined last week’s strike. Dissatisfied with the $100 monthly minimum wage the government has put on the table, she said she would strike again if the unions called for it.

“If they protest again I will join,” she said. “Even though they offer to raise the wage to $100, they will take away our benefits.”

Un Then, who had spent the past few days at home in Prey Veng province, said she only came back to pick up her last paycheck. She said she would be heading back to Prey Veng as soon as she got paid to find another factory job closer to home.

“I don’t want to go on strike again because I think $100 is enough for me,” she said. “And my parents want me to work in the countryside.”

Soun Thoun said only about 20 percent of his coworkers were back at the Bright Sky factory down the road.

Mr. Thoun said he wasn’t happy with the government’s offer, but would not be joining any future protests, either, having seen how the police and military were prepared to react.

“I don’t dare to join any strikes again because the government uses force,” he said. “I don’t think another strike will happen.”

Farther down the road at Makalot Garments, Chea Ny and her friend said her factory was nearly back to full staff.

They said they would join another strike, but not if the unions kept pushing for $160, which they agreed the government would never accept.

“If they [the unions] ask for more advantage for the workers I will join, but not for $160,” Ms. Ny said.

She said she would join protests demanding a more modest $110 or $120. But for $160, she said, “it would just be a waste of time.”

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