Military police shot in the air and beat demonstrating workers after a second day of protests turned violent at the Sam Han garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district on Tuesday.
Workers and witnesses interviewed outside the factory said the 1,000-strong protest—to demand salaries that factory workers said they are owed by management— turned violent when workers set a small fire at the factory gate, broke guard house windows and entered the factory.
“The police forces shot four times in the air to threaten us when our workers did minor damage to the guard post and the lamps on the fence,” factory worker Ros Sambath said.
“We broke the lamps because no union representatives negotiate for us,” he said.
Workers at the factory claimed they had not been paid for four months.
Tuol Sangke commune police Chief Khat Darasy said two protesters were arrested. But he said the men were detained for shouting: “Let’s burn Sam Han down.”
“About 1,000 workers destroyed things inside the Sam Han garment factory,” he added.
Police officers also used force to prevent the workers from marching to the National Assembly.
Chuon Mom Thol, president of the pro-CPP Cambodian Union Federation, was at the scene of the protest Tuesday morning. Later, Chuon Mom Thol said that Prime Minister Hun Sen had agreed to permit the government to lend the factory $400,000 to pay Sam Han’s 5,000 workers two months’ salary.
“Samdech Prime Minster Hun Sen has agreed to lend the factory money to pay two months of workers’ salaries. If workers agree they can come tomorrow to collect the salary. If they don’t agree, that is up to them,” he said.
Authorities were unsure Tuesday afternoon whether Sam Han’s Korean manager had fled Cambodia.
Minister of Labor Nhep Bunchin would not confirm the claim that Hun Sen would pay the workers’ outstanding wages, saying only “we are working on this…. The employers must pay the workers according to the law.”
Vann Chhay, a representative of the Gap Inc clothing label, said that Gap, the Sam Han factory’s major garment buyer, stopped ordering from the factory a few months ago but could not say why.
According to the International Labor Organization’s monitoring unit, Sam Han had by February 2004 implemented only 16 of its 44 recommendations to improve labor standards at the factory.
Labor Law and safety infractions ranged from not informing workers of wage calculations to poor lighting, ventilation and fire-safety.
Chuon Mom Thol estimated that workers had caused $3,000 in damage to Sam Han on Tuesday.