Trade unions may have failed to get a stay-at-home strike for higher wages off the ground after the Khmer New Year earlier this month. But a strike for bonus pay is picking up steam in Svay Rieng Province, where some 20,000 garment workers protested at a pair of Bavet City special economic zones on Saturday.
A frustrated Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) put out a statement on Friday rebuking the workers and the government alike, urging local authorities to do more before the protests get out of hand.
The Bavet City strikes got started at a few factories after the new year holiday when some workers grew envious of their colleagues at other local factories who had just been paid a one-time, $50 bonus for agreeing not to strike over the past three months. Though most factories had not offered their workers the same deal, more and more workers at the Manhattan and Tai Seng Bavet special economic zones are insisting on it.
“We will protest until the factory gives us $50,” said Dy, a worker at the BK factory who joined Saturday’s strikes and gave only his first name for fear of retaliation from his bosses.
“Why did the other factories give their workers $50 for not going on strike or demonstrating?” he said. “We did not participate, either, so our factory has to give the same thing as the other factories.”
Channa, another striker, said his factory, Smart Tech, caved in on Saturday and agreed to pay him and his colleagues the $50.
“The factory also promised us that if we do not protest for another three months we will get $25,” he said. “So we will not protest or strike, but if other workers [at my factory] protest, I will join them.”
Chheng Chhean, secretary general of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, estimated that employees at about 80 percent of Bavet’s roughly 40 garment factories—some 20,000 workers in all—joined the strike on Saturday.
Bavet city deputy police chief Keo Horn confirmed the figure, and said some of the protesters broke windows at the Kingmaker factory when they threw rocks at the building in a bid to get workers inside to join them. He expected the strikes to resume today.
“Since there was no solution on Saturday, workers will continue to protest to demand $50,” he said.
In February 2012, then-Bavet City Governor Chhouk Bundith shot and injured three female garment factory workers who were protesting at the Manhattan Special Economic Zone. He was found guilty of the crime in May 2013 but has never been arrested.
In a statement posted to its website on Friday, GMAC accused the workers of trying to effectively “blackmail” the factories for money they were never promised and warned that, far from winning the bonuses they want, they could have their salaries cut if they kept protesting. The statement puts the blame squarely on the Collective Union and its president, Pav Sina.
It also warned authorities that the protests could grow increasingly violent and spread if they did not gain control of the situation soon.
“GMAC regrets that the government and local authorities allow this illegal action to take place and do not act effectively to prevent it,” it says. “GMAC has seen this action turn violent because the strikers have thrown rocks at the factories and threatened other workers not to go to work and destroyed factory property. This will spread to other locations where there are garment and footwear factories if there is no prevention.
“Ignoring and allowing the unions to act as they want will destroy investors’ trust in the government to protect their safety and legal interests,” the statement says.
GMAC claims that the last round of nationwide strikes forced its members to lose out on $42.2 million in revenue and caused $17.3 million in property damage.
Those strikes started out with small protests for more pay and better working conditions in Bavet in November. The strikes gradually spread and finally ended abruptly on January 3 when military police fired into crowds of protesters in Phnom Penh, killing at least five garment workers and injuring more than 40 others.
The Collective Union’s Mr. Sina denied GMAC’s claim that his group was somehow responsible for the Bavet strikes.
“GMAC’s accusation that I have incited the workers is groundless because their demand is different from the union’s demand,” he said. “The workers are demanding $50 to not strike or demonstrate, but our union is demanding the release of imprisoned workers and an increase [of the minimum wage] to $160.”
Despite the disparate goals, Mr. Sina said he was in support of the Bavet strikes.
“We support the protesters because they are demanding their rights and better working conditions since the factories have abused them by firing representatives who have lead protests, forced workers to work overtime and made it hard for workers to get leave when they are sick,” he said.
The Svay Rieng provincial labor department could not be reached for comment. But Mr. Horn, the municipal deputy police chief, said they were doing their best to try and settle the dispute.
“It is hard to find a solution for the workers because they do not have representatives to negotiate,” he said. Local officials planned to facilitate a meeting between workers and factory owners today, he added.
Mr. Horn said police have also summoned two local Collective Union representatives, Sun Chet and Chea Udom, for questioning today over a recent complaint filed by the factories. The union says it will gather some 5,000 supporters at the municipal police station to protest.