Demonstrating Garment Workers Clash With Riot Police

While Cambodian union federations met Monday with US labor officials and demanded a blanket wage increase in the country’s garment in­dustry, riot police beat striking fac­tory workers with batons, leaving four women injured and stalling traffic on Russian Boulevard.

The midmorning clash be­tween 150 police officers and a largely female crowd of some 3,000 workers topped a four-day strike to protest alleged in-house intimidation and poor payment policies.

Incoming passengers at Phnom Penh International Air­port snapped photos as Won­rex (Cambodia) factory employees marched 3 km into town from the Dangkao district factory on National Route 4.

Intervention riot police wielding shields, AK-47s, bamboo clubs and rubber batons formed a human wall across Russian Boulevard’s Plaza Market area to prevent workers from reaching the National Assembly in the city center. The police operation was ordered by the “highest level,” a Dang­kao district police officer said on condition of anonymity.

Several women strikers said they were demanding an end to in­timidation by a pro-management gang working to silence calls for improved working conditions.

“The gangster beat me unconscious because I strongly op­posed [the factory] and led the protest,” said worker Sous Visal, 20. “The factory boss rents gangsters.”

Workers left Wonrex Thurs­day after two unions failed to ad­dress concerns over wages and the fairness of elections for workers’ representatives, workers said Monday.

Keo Poeun, a Cambodian Co­alition of Democratic Workers technical assistant, said employees’ concerns are rooted in the industry-wide problem of management-sponsored unions that aim to undermine workers’ demands for labor improvements.

He said Wonrex employees called his union Friday complaining that workers’ representatives hired by managers had threatened employees and beaten two of them that day.

Workers at the factory last week refused to accept a deal be­tween managers and the Cam­bodian Labor Union Feder­ation and the Cambodian Feder­ation of Independent Trade Un­ions—known CPP supporters, Keo Poeun said.

CFITU President Ros Sok said Monday his union negotiated a deal with the management, but he declined to comment on the union’s political affiliation.

Wonrex managers were un­available for comment.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy visited the conflict site Monday afternoon to denounce the violence.

“I am against any form of violence. Therefore I condemn the practice of the factory man­age­ment who have hired hooligans to beat or even wound the workers in order to intimidate them,” he said. “The workers don’t trust the union. I suggest that a truly representative trade union be set up.”

Sam Rainsy assigned another opposition parliamentarian to facilitate negotiations, which appeared stalled Monday afternoon. Workers are demanding increased piece-rate wages, fair workers’ representative elections, the posting of Khmer-language factory regulations and the firing of “gangsters.”

Sam Rainsy also said he supported the gradual increase of the minimum wage, a demand posed by union federations in a meeting at the US Embassy on Monday.

Delegates from the US State and Labor departments this week are consulting representatives from the ministries of Commerce and Labor, garment manufacturers, the International Labor Or­gan­ization and unions to review garment industry conditions. The review will affect a bilateral trade agreement offering Cambodia greater opportunities to export to the US.

Sam Rainsy, who led massive demonstrations for higher wages in 1996, said the government “should proceed step by step,” raising the current $45 monthly salary to $55.

The opposition leader’s proposal pales in comparison to a suggested $70 minimum wage, proposed by Cambodian Union Fed­eration President Choum Mom­thol.

Choum Momthol, who says he executes CPP orders inside factories because the ruling party is “rich and powerful,” overhauled the union’s agenda Monday, calling for all unions to unite behind labor improvements, regardless of politics.

“If I just collude, my big boss will not know to improve conditions. You have to say something so that my CPP can improve,” he said.

He said a wage increase and several changes to the night shift should be included in next year’s trade agreement.

Chea Vichea, president of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union of Workers of the King­dom of Cambodia, said he did not be­lieve Choum Momthol’s call for unity but agreed with the labor reforms.

Representatives from the Garment Manufacturers Associa­tion in Cambodia and the Labor Ministry said it was too early to comment on the proposed raise.

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