For Union Leader on Run, Militant Attitude Prevails

For Seang Rithy, president of the small Cambodia Solidarity Union Federation, avoiding arrest is a simple task.

“We just drive around the city to avoid being noticed by the authorities, and we keep changing guesthouses in the city and its outskirts,” said Mr. Rithy, 27, in an interview on the grounds of Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom on Thursday.

“Sometimes I also turn my phone off because I am afraid they can track us through the 3G network.”

The union leader and his wife are on the lam in their green Toyota Corolla after he and six other union officials were accused of inciting garment workers to block a road in front of the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kompong Speu province on Tuesday morning.

The other six were arrested on their way to the factory, the site of a fatal building collapse last year, as they were traveling in two cars mounted with loudspeakers.

The Kompong Speu Provincial Court charged the six on Tuesday, but police failed to seize Mr. Rithy, who said he had planned to close the highway next to the strike with burning tires, but had been tardy in leaving his home.

“One day my husband will be arrested by the authorities,” his wife, Sem La, 26, said Thursday, as Mr. Rithy thumbed his silver iPhone 5s.

Ms. La said she had been following closely the now twice-delayed trial of the protesters and union leaders arrested in strike suppressions in January.

“I am concerned he will end up like the 23 people for whom there is no solution and whose cases keep getting delayed, and then we won’t know how long he will have to stay in prison,” she said, drawing laughs from Mr. Rithy.

Kong Pisei district police chief Kim Sophannara confirmed Thursday police are searching for the union leader to place him in pretrial detention.

“We are looking for Seang Rithy,” he said.

Mr. Rithy says his life in labor activism, which he defines mostly as starting strikes, began in 2010 as a student at the Royal University of Law and Economics, where he volunteered at the Teachers Association of Cambodia.

“We learned about the difficulties of the workers and their living conditions, and the weak points of some of the other unions,” he said.

In April 2011, Mr. Rithy and others in the association who had learned the trade of stoking worker strikes founded the Solidarity Union Federation.

“We then became very busy with strikes and protests, every month and every week, since we tried to help the workers,” Mr. Rithy explained, claiming that his federation now claims 50,000 members across 20 factories.

Members each pay a $0.50 fee to the federation each month to fund its activities, according to Mr. Rithy, and can call in the leaders for strike support.

“All of the unions in each of the factories now have experience in striking, burning car tires and blocking the roads,” Mr. Rithy said proudly.

On Tuesday morning, the Wing Star workers asked his union for help after the Free Trade Union, which led previous strikes in late April, called off striking in the face of a court order and threats of mass lay-offs, he claimed.

Mr. Rithy said his Solidarity Union, famous for its militant advocacy for garment workers but with no members inside Wing Star, was an obvious choice for the workers faced with a meek response from their own union.

Leaning on his Corolla at Wat Ounalom on Thursday, the young union leader said that moderation in labor unionism in Cambodia is a senseless strategy.

“When you work in this sector, you know your fate. One day, you will be put in jail or you will be arrested—and then you fight with the law.”

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