More than 1,000 exuberant factory workers gathered Sunday in Toek Thlar commune to ask the candidates who want their votes some pointed questions:
Will you protect workers’ rights? Can you provide better security around the factories at night? Will you promise to urge factory owners to honor our contracts?
The answers were, essentially, yes, yes and yes, from the three political parties that attended the nonpartisan forum for commune council candidates, jointly sponsored by the Cambodian Labor Organization and the Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
The CPP was represented on stage by an empty chair labeled “CPP.” The ruling party declined to take part, saying the gathering was “illegal” and “biased.” Representatives of Funcinpec, the Khmer Democratic Party and the Sam Rainsy Party attended and stood up in turn to field questions from union representatives.
The audience, comprised of workers from 14 factories in Toek Thlar commune, which runs along Pochentong Boulevard in Phnom Penh, listened attentively as the candidates answered.
One question involved the difficulties workers had setting up a union at one factory. All three candidates said they would protect the workers’ rights in similar situations.
A second questioner referred to the violence that erupted in June 2000, when a demonstrating workers attempted to storm the June Textile Co Ltd factory and were dispersed by gunfire.
“If there was a crackdown on a legal demonstration, how would you solve the problem?” the questioner wanted to know.
“We wouldn’t use force, and we would protect the rights of the workers,” said Keung Mao of the Sam Rainsy Party.
“Under the Constitution, you have the right to a legal demonstration,” said Ponn Kuntheavy of Funcinpec. “If the workers were attacked, we would protect them.”
Em Pin Veary, of the Khmer Democratic Party, said her party is committed to the rule of law. “We would hire a lawyer to protect the people, according to the law,” she said.
Other questions dealt with security issues, including poorly lighted streets at night when workers go home after overtime shifts, and robbers preying on individual workers.
All three candidates vowed to strengthen security.
Another questioner claimed factory owners sometimes sign contracts that are enforced if a labor inspector is present, but ignored when no one is watching.
“Could the commune council members join in the contract negotiations, as witnesses, to ensure the contract would be enforced?” asked the questioner.
All three candidates said they would. Ponn Kuntheavy of Funcinpec claimed that, as a woman, she is better qualified to truly understand the problems of women workers.
The forum closed with the three repeating their vows to stand by the workers, fight corruption wherever they find it, and work for improved living conditions for all.
An Nan, a legal adviser with the CLO, stepped to the microphone. “Now we have listened to the promises of the different parties, right?” he challenged the crowd.
“Yes!” they yelled.
“When you go home, will you remember them?”
“YES!” they roared.