Eight people were arrested as garment workers from rival unions in Kompong Speu province clashed with each other, and with riot police, on Monday at a Taiwanese-owned garment factory making clothing for U.S. sports brand Nike, police and union officials said.
Since May 20, striking workers at Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment MFG Corp., which employs about 5,000 people in its factory on National Road 4 in Samraong Tong district, have staged several protests, some violent, to demand a wage increase.
At 7 a.m., thousands of garment workers gathered at the factory and were confronted by approximately 1,000 riot police and military police officers.
Management at the factory said that when the protesting workers attempted to storm the gates of the factory around 11 a.m., police and military police moved in to break up the demonstration, and arrested several union leaders and strikers.
Video footage and photographs show workers hurling rocks and sticks and wielding metal poles toward riot police during running battles on the road outside the factory.
However, accounts differed on how the protest turned violent, and who was responsible.
Thorn Thol, deputy secretary-general at the Free Trade Union (FTU)—which has led the strike protests since May 20—said that three FTU representatives and five other workers were arrested during the fracas.
Mr. Thol said the strikers had responded to violent provocation by people inside the factory.
“First, there were 10 workers [inside the factory] who are supporters of the factory owner, throwing rocks and stones at the workers, who were rallying outside the factory. This made our workers angry and they fought back over the gate of the Sabrina factory,” he said. “This is the factory owner’s tactic to crack down on the workers,” he claimed.
Mr. Thol said that workers broke into the factory’s compound and that authorities then arrested his union’s representatives.
In the aftermath of the arrests, the FTU released a statement saying it did not know where the eight arrested union representatives and protesters had been taken.
“We would like Nike to take measure immediately in order to bring the solution to all workers and bring justice to our union leaders who function to support workers at this factory,” the statement says.
National police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith declined to comment on the arrests, but a major who led riot police at the factory protest, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the media, confirmed the eight arrests and said the suspects were being held at the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh.
“We intervened during the workers’ rally because they were smashing [the factory’s] glass windows using slingshots and throwing rocks, wooden sticks and steel bars toward our riot police,” the police major said, adding that a handful of the 1,000 officers deployed to the protest had received minor injuries after being hit by projectiles.
“We arrested eight workers who were the leaders of the rally, and we confiscated eight motorbikes, two large speakers and a bullhorn.”
Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union—the union whose members make up the majority of workers at Sabrina—said it was the FTU representatives who were responsible for “violence and damaging property,” at the factory.
Mr. Athit said the strike was a radical move by the FTU to try to gain supporters at the factory and, he claimed, his union had already struck a deal with Sabrina management to raise the basic wage of workers from $86 to $95 per month, including transport and health benefits.
Joel Preston, a consultant for the Community Legal Education Center, which advocates for workers rights and who was present at the factory, said it appeared there had been an altercation between members of the FTU and others inside the factory.
“Allegedly there was an altercation between workers inside the factory and that property damage was minimal. The altercation involved those workers that were on strike and those that were working,” Mr. Preston said in an email.
“[Following the arrests] police proceeded to disperse the remaining protesters. Workers’ injuries are still unclear but on scene, approximately 10 police received treatment for minor injuries, one possibly serious.”
Mr. Preston said the strike showed that an increase to the minimum wage agreed in March was not enough as rising inflation meant that garment workers were “as poor now as they were in the early 2000s.”
A statement released Monday evening by Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm headquartered in Missouri that has been hired by Sabrina, said about 3,000 workers had actually returned to work as normal on Monday.
But “a small group of around 300 people, not all of them employees of Sabrina, continued to protest outside the factory gates. Before 11 a.m. some of this group broke into the factory grounds and caused damage to property. These intruders were removed by the police,” the statement says.
The statement notes that the factory has asked the police to investigate the handling of last week’s protest action where violence and injuries were also reported.
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