Two economic zones in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet City closed down on Thursday, sending some 30,000 workers home over what local officials said were violent protests by groups of workers demanding higher wages.
The protests in the Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones (SEZs), which have long experienced fraught industrial relations, led the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) to send an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen calling for government intervention.
Workers from factories in the SEZs said on Thursday that they did not know who was responsible for the protests, and no unions claimed responsibility for the industrial action.
Kao Horn, a deputy police chief in Bavet City, said the unrest started on Wednesday afternoon when a group of workers from the Kingmaker Cambodia factory walked off the job and attempted to convince staff at other factories to join them.
“The number of workers who started the protest was not large,” Mr. Horn said. “They incited other workers to get out of work…and if other workers didn’t stop working, they threw stones and other objects at the factories.”
Mr. Horn said local officials were attempting to identify the leaders of the protests, but that this was proving difficult due to the number of workers who poured out of the factories amid the chaos.
“There is no solution yet and now workers have all gone home already,” he said. “Violence has happened and other factories nearby sustained damage, including windows being smashed.”
In its letter, GMAC said the protests had cost the factories millions of dollars.
“Today…the whole production activities of Manhattan Special Economic Zone have been completely stopped, causing millions of dollars in losses,” it said.
GMAC called on the government and local authorities “to take immediate effective and appropriate measures for the protection of security and safety of the investors and their properties and for the prevention of further violent acts against the law of Cambodia.”
The riotous protests that began on Wednesday at the Manhattan SEZ spread into the nearby Tai Seng SEZ on Thursday morning, according to Mao Kosal, operations manager at Tai Seng.
“Yesterday, our workers worked normally until about 9 a.m. in the morning, when we got affected by Manhattan,” he said. “The protesters flocked into our zone’s complex and committed the violence unstoppably.”
Mr. Kosal said factories in the SEZ had no choice but to temporarily shut down.
“In this special economic zone today, all factories are closed…due to the workers kicking our doors and chasing and beating other workers in order for them to get out of the factory buildings.”
Chheng Chhoan, president of Independent Labor Union of Cambodia (ILUC), which is based in Bavet City, said his union had no role in the protests. He said it was unclear how many of the 30,000 workers at the SEZs were directly involved in the protests, and that the demands of the workers seemed to vary.
“The demands are not clear yet—some say this and some say that,” he said. “Some say the protesters are demanding more than $20 in addition to the agreed minimum wage, while some say they are demanding about $10 more [than the minimum wage].”
In October, the Labor Ministry announced that the minimum wage for the garment sector, which accounts for the majority of factories in Bavet City, would be raised from $128 to $140 in January.
GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said on Thursday that there had been previous problems at some of the factories in the SEZs and blamed the recurring issue on authorities not clamping down on “illegal activities” in the past.
“What we have now is not a problem of strikes; it’s basically riots, because violence is involved,” Mr. Loo said. “Why do I think it keeps happening? Because there were no sanctions for prior illegal activities.”
However, William Conklin, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, said the sort of desperate action that broke out in Bavet City was the result of weak unions and a breakdown in relations between workers and factory management.
“If there existed unions with collective bargaining rights, that would go a long way to preventing these types of situations,” Mr. Conklin said.
“That workers would take matters into their own hands is indicative of long-standing issues that exist there,” he added. “So maybe workers in this zone thought these were tactics that could be used to address grievances or wage issues.”
(Additional reporting by George Wright and Colin Meyn)