sa’ang district, Kandal province – Hundreds of garment factory workers packed their bags and climbed into overloaded taxi trucks Tuesday morning, headed for their home villages one day after a violent demonstration and a fire destroyed a large warehouse at Goldfame Enterprises International Knitters Ltd.
Several workers estimated Tuesday morning that as many as half of the factory’s 4,000 workers would be gone by Tuesday evening. Many of the young factory workers say they will resume rice farming with their families.
“I don’t know what other choice I will have,” said one 22-year-old woman from Takeo province who said she had earned $42 per month at the factory.
Some workers left Sitbo commune Monday evening while the fire still burned, villagers said. Most of the Cambodian workers at the Hong Kong-owned factory were from Prey Veng, Takeo and Kandal provinces, workers said.
The fire was set by members of an angry crowd of demonstrators who rushed the factory’s main gate early Monday afternoon and went on a rampage, smashing windows in every building and lighting a fire that gutted the factory’s warehouse and the merchandise within it.
Several workers said Tuesday the demonstration outside the gate escalated out of control when one policeman struck a young woman, knocking several of her teeth out. One other woman and one man were also injured in clashes with police, workers said.
Sources on Monday said a decision by workers taking part in an illegal strike to block the company gates escalated into a scuffle. After several people were injured, the strikers stormed into the compound.
Commune police chief Sok Som Ol and factory general manager Sam Yu denied police hit the demonstrators.
The protest began as a labor dispute between factory management and workers from the factory’s knitting section. But factory officials, villagers and police said some members of the crowd who caused the factory damage were former factory workers who had been fired and villagers who joined with them in order to steal factory merchandise.
Some sewing machines were broken, and a few others were probably stolen Monday, Sam Yu said. Fax machines, computers and other office equipment also disappeared, along with clothing items. Sam Yu said he is not yet able to calculate the financial loss.
More than 100 policeman came to the factory Monday afternoon, said Sam Yu. Eight firefighting trucks from Phnom Penh and Takhmau battled the blaze, which lasted until 7 pm.
Dozens of policemen roamed the company grounds Tuesday morning. Broken glass and shards of brick lay inside the main entrance and elsewhere throughout the factory grounds.
“Every factory building was damaged,” said Sam Yu. “We hope we can continue….[But] we want to first make sure that everything is safe.”
The workers who remained in Sitbo commune hope the factory will resume operating this week. A factory official has said he will negotiate with workers today or Thursday about returning to work, one worker said.
Sam Yu would not comment on when the factory could get back on its feet, saying only “we would like to try our best to try and recover.”
The company, which holds contracts with a number of well-known US retailers, including The Limited/Structure, Target and Meryvn’s, has been the scene of labor unrest for several months.
Two weeks ago, workers complained to the company that they were being paid too little for piecework, a system under which each worker is paid a set amount for each “piece” he or she finishes.
Negotiations were held last week, and factory officials offered to raise the piecework pay from $3 to $4. But workers from the factory’s knitting section, who claim they once earned as much as $8, rejected the offer.
One young woman, who would not give her name, said she feels no anger toward the demonstrators, even though Monday’s fire may have put her job in jeopardy. “To protest was the right thing for them to do,” she said.
But Cheang Sokna, a 20-year-old woman from Takeo, felt the demonstrators went too far.
“We didn’t think they would burn the factory building. We thought they were only burning motorcycle tires,” she said.