Police used tear gas, electric batons and rifle butts and fired bullets into the air to disperse about 700 former Sam Han garment factory workers protesting in front of the factory in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district on Tuesday morning, police and protesters said.
At least 18 people were assaulted by police, and as a crowd of former workers fled the demonstration, one man’s leg was broken in the stampede in Tuol Sangke commune, protesters said.
Police said they were acting to protect the factory’s property. But the former workers said police attacked them while they were demonstrating peacefully for compensation following the factory’s closure.
“We shot to defend ourselves because thousands of rocks were thrown at us,” commune police Chief Khat Darasy said.
“We need to keep good order and security. We first used tear gas to break the demonstration, but they instead used rocks to hit us.”
Path Chheng, 28, said he was hit three times in the face by intervention police.
“We are jobless and starving. Government leaders should resolve this matter for us but instead they beat us,” Path Chheng said.
Sam Han’s South Korean owner left Cambodia two weeks ago. Last week, the government paid some of the factory’s 100,000 workers for reduced salaries for January and February and ordered the factory closed after the owners said it was bankrupt.
Workers, however, are demanding further compensation, said Ath Ith, secretary of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
They are owed an average of $300 in compensation each by the government, said Chhorn Sokha, deputy director of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
The government has loaned the company over $1.2 million to try and keep the firm afloat and to pay workers’ salaries for January and February.
US clothing firm The Gap stopped ordering from the factory several months ago for unspecified reasons.
Neak Noucheat, 31, said Tuesday he was struck several times in the back with an electric baton while trying to shield female demonstrators from police.
“They beat us when we hold a peaceful demonstration,” he said.
Three workers were briefly detained following the demonstration, and about 500 wept and vomited in response to the tear gas, factory union organizer Arn Nath said.
Police also arrested one man identified as Cheat, who police and former workers allege is a local gangster who was not employed at the factory. Police accused him of vandalizing factory property.
CAWDU secretary Ath Ith denied workers were attempting to destroy factory property.
“They were just standing in front of the factory, holding signs making their demands,” he said. “This is really a violation of the workers’ rights.”
Chuon Mom Thol, president of the CPP-backed Cambodian Union Federation, said gang members infiltrated the protest and tried to enter the factory to cause trouble.
“Outsiders [tried] to cause trouble,” he said. “It is not our workers.”
He added that he supported the workers’ claims for compensation from the factory, but recommended they try to do so through the court.
“I support them, but I don’t know where to find the money,” he said.
The Ministry of Labor’s chief of labor dispute resolution, Khiev Savouth, also recommended legal action by workers and the government against the factory.
“The best resolution is for workers and the government to together sue in municipal court,” he said. “Then we can get a warrant from the court to auction all the factory’s property to pay compensation.”
On Monday, Russei Keo district governor Khlaing Huot had warned the former workers to stop protesting. He said that police would use violent means to stop them if they marched.
“Your march is illegal, so a violent crackdown will be enforced against all of you,” Khlaing Huot said.