As tens of thousands of garment workers returned to work Friday after a more than three-day strike, at least 10 factories have filed lawsuits against union representatives preventing them from returning to work, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said. Cambodian Labor Confederation officials warned that the lawsuits could cause strikes to resume next week.
The strikes ended a day after the government called on both sides to negotiate on Sept 27 over the union’s demands for salary supplements for workers. Phnom Penh Municipal Court also issued an injunction Thursday to stop the strike, though CLC officials denied that the injunctions prompted the end of the strike.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, said that at least 10 factories in Kandal province and Phnom Penh have filed lawsuits against no more than 50 union leaders and representatives, including CLC President Ath Thon, on accusations of holding an illegal strike, inciting workers and causing a loss of production for factories.
“We have in excess of 10 factories that have obtained court injunctions to stop the union leaders from going back to work,” he said.
He said the strike was another example of the unions holding illegal strikes without going through proper channels, such as meeting at the Labor Arbitration Council.
“It comes to a point where the investors have had it,” he said. “Why should we back down?”
CLC has claimed 150,000 workers were on strike this week, but GMAC estimated that fewer than 15,000 actively demonstrated, with fewer than 35,000 not showing up for work.
GMAC members are calling for more legal action from GMAC against organizers, regardless of any negotiations on Sept 27.
“If we do have a basis for such action, rest assured we will pursue it to the fullest extent,” he said, adding that the lawsuit would be filed against “organizers of the strike for incitement, creating harm to the industry and for organizing the illegal strike.”
Judge In Vannvibol, chief of Kandal Provincial Court, said he did not know how many union representatives had complaints filed against them by their employers.
“There are about nine factory owners who came to the court,” he said.
Chiv Keng, director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, confirmed the injunction against the strike, but declined to say whether strikers would be arrested if work stoppages resume. “Each factory owner requested the court to stop this because it spoiled the interest of the factory,” he said, declining to talk about factory lawsuits.
Kong Athit, secretary-general of the CLC, defended the strike’s legality and said that employers have fired more than 130 union representatives for their role in the strike, an action that could return workers to the picket lines.
“In one week or more, if the employers do not stop discriminating and dismissing union representatives, we will consider conducting the strike again,” he said.
Mr Athit said the union followed the law in organizing the strike, sending a request to the Labor Ministry, which never arranged a meeting with the arbitration council as required.
“Obviously we informed about this strike ahead of time,” he said, rejecting accusations of incitement.
“Garment workers joined this strike voluntarily,” he said. “We did not force them to take part if they didn’t volunteer to participate.”
Mr Thon, the CLC president, said the factories’ accusations were baseless.
“They can accuse whatever they want, because we are not wrong,” he said. Officials at the Labor Ministry could not be reached for comment.
Mr Loo said legal action would not be suspended in the name of reconciliation.
“No way, no way. We tried reconciling before the strike happened,” he said.
David Welsh, country program director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said Cambodian law is unclear on the legality of the strike, but that threats of legal action could negatively affect negotiations.
“This talk about legal action doesn’t really help,” he said.
Strike leaders should be given credit for requesting the strike and keeping it within the stated timeline, he said. He declined to speculate on how further strikes would affect the situation.“This is an opportunity for serious negotiation at this stage. Let’s hope for the best.”