Garment Workers Block Road in Protest Over Unpaid Wages

Hundreds of Ocean Garment factory workers staged a sit-in on one of Phnom Penh’s major thoroughfares Tuesday to protest the factory’s failure to follow an Arbitration Council ruling on unpaid wages.

Brandishing tree branches for shade and protest signs, the workers formed a human barricade across Russian Boulevard in Pur Senchey district at about 8 a.m. and refused to move for eight straight hours.

Workers from Ocean Garment factory block Russian Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district on Tuesday morning. (Holly Robertson/The Cambodia Daily)

Ken Chantha, a 40-year-old worker, said blocking the major transportation route, which is near the Ocean Garment factory, was the only way to push local officials to deal with their problem.

“I haven’t been able to pay the rent for my house for one month, so I need to do it,” she said.

The Arbitration Council ruled last week that Ocean Garment, which suspended operations on May 26 due to a lack of orders, should give the workers $120 each in furlough pay.

However, the factory chose to ignore the ruling and said it would pay $100 to staff employed for more than six months and $50 to those who had been working less than six months.

Rejecting the factory’s offer, about 600 workers turned out Tuesday morning to form the roadblock, with several arguments erupting between drivers and the protesters, who eventually allowed some vehicles to pass through.

“I am angry too,” said driver Bi Bun Sak, who had been stuck in the traffic jam for nearly two hours. “[The workers] should not do this as it affects my job and other businesspeople.”

The union representing the workers turned down an offer Tuesday morning from Pur Senchey deputy district governor Khem Sun Soda to oversee negotiations.

“If we go to negotiations at the district headquarters we will be at a disadvantage to the factory because the local officials will be on the side of the factory,” said Collective Union of Movement of Workers secretary-general Chheng Chorn.

Mr. Sun Soda said that although district security guards did not use force against the protesters Tuesday, they would take action if ordered to do so.

“We do not crack down because we are forgiving, but if we receive orders from higher officials we will do it,” he said.

“They have no legal right to block the road, because it is an industrial road.”

Tith Sophoan, an administrator at Ocean Garment, said the factory’s current owner could not offer any more money to the workers. He added that once the dispute was resolved, the factory would be passed to a new owner who would decide whether to renew the workers’ contracts.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the association has advised factory management on its options following the Arbitration Council’s ruling.

“As far as the factory is concerned, it is a nonbinding ruling,” he said.

The blockade ended at 4 p.m. as union officials told workers to save their energy for further protests Wednesday.

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