A garment factory worker was shot during a Monday night confrontation between workers at a Singaporean-owned factory in Phnom Penh and hundreds of heavily armed police called in by factory management.
Bright Sky Factory workers and a rights official claimed the police fired AK47 rifles, and beat more than 100 people with rifle butts or shocked them with electric batons during the protest by several hundred workers.
The factory’s owner Albert Tan and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia said on Tuesday that the workers provoked the harsh police response by throwing rocks and bottles.
Tan also said that the hundreds of police officers who deployed at his factory behaved responsibly, and that it was not clear if police shot the female worker.
Grainy video footage provided by the factory appears to show several rocks being hurled over the closed factory gate, before scores of armed police, who had moved inside the factory, marched out of the gates and into the crowd while firing scores of bullets into the air.
The violence occurred between 9 pm and 10 pm.
Bright Sky is part of the Suntex group of factories, which produces garments for big-name US brands including The Gap and Sears, and clothing for top US colleges including Cornell and New York University.
In a room in Preah Kossamak Hospital on Tuesday, Muth Savy, who works at a separate factory inside the same compound as Bright Sky, was recovering from a bullet that hit her in the lower back and passed through her abdomen.
“When I was running from the Flying Tigers police, the police shot me,” the 24-year-old mother said from her hospital bed.
She said she was not involved in the protest but became caught up in the violence.
Chan Soveth, an investigator for local rights group Adhoc, witnessed the confrontation and alleged that police fired both into the air and appeared to take aim at workers.
“The police regarded the workers as their enemies,” Chan Soveth said, adding that hundreds of workers were hit or shocked with batons outside the factory.
Free Trade Union activist Chhi Samon said the confrontation stemmed from a weeklong strike over temporary worker contracts. He said the factory management had verbally assured a group of workers that after two months they would be hired permanently, but had later reneged. He said a protest began when 20 workers crossed the picket line late Monday afternoon.
Police began to arrive shortly before nightfall and guarded the factory for several hours while workers demonstrated outside the compound. Police subsequently moved into the factory and the workers relocated outside.
Chhi Samon claimed that instigators threw some rocks into the compound to create an excuse for the harsh police response.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said the ministry is investigating the incident and does not condone police firing weapons to disperse crowds.
Dangkao district deputy police Chief Chuop Sok Heng denied police had fired weapons or that anyone was injured.
Deputy municipal police chief Hy Prou said it was not yet clear to him whether police or someone else shot Muth Savy.
Tan, who also serves as GMAC treasurer, said that he has already heard from one of his major buyers, US retail chain Sears, asking about the shooting.
“I have buyers already contacting me, asking me for details, and talking about canceling orders,” said Tan, who has displayed on his office wall an award from The Gap for “maintaining favorable industrial relations.”
Tan said that his factory abides by the Labor Law and has been negotiating with unions since Oct 6 to resolve the dispute with his workers.
Tan said that he repeatedly invited Chhi Samon to come inside the factory to negotiate an end to the protest, but he declined.
The video shot by factory management shows hundreds of workers milling around the factory compound, shouting slogans, and ripping off a factory door.
“We were inside and we were scared of this crowd, that is why we called police,” Tan said.
“The police behaved responsibly, they were passively protecting property for hours,” Tan said. “You can see that they fire into the air. We do not know who fired the pistol shots.”
Tan said that four policemen were slightly injured by the thrown objects.
“It is unfortunate that someone was shot, but it was a freak accident,” GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said.
“It is not in any factory owner’s interest to involve the military or police to attack workers…the issue is not what police did, but the level of unrest they had to face,” Loo added.
Loo also said that he did not know whether police beat workers with rifle butts, because the confrontation took place beyond the factory gates and out of view.
Tan said that the factory would pay for Muth Savy’s hospital expenses.
A representative from Sears and John Ritchotte, the technical adviser for the International Labor Organization’s dispute resolution project, declined to comment on the incident.
Officials with The Gap did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.