Several thousand garment workers headed for a banned public forum at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park were blocked from entering the city yesterday morning, union officials said, threatening renewed strikes if a new minimum wage is not raised.
Though authorities eventually allowed some of the workers to gather in front of the National Assembly yesterday, rights groups criticized the ban and accused the government of suppressing workers’ rights.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 workers had come to the city center for the forum, despite a heavy security at Wat Botum Park and at access points to Phnom Penh.
Mr Thorn said workers were stopped by police and made to wait for hours, with some deciding to continue on foot.
“What the police did this morning is try to prevent people from expressing their opinions,” he said.
The CLC and the Cambodian National Confederation had organized the forum for workers to consider labor actions over the newly announced $5 minimum wage increase, which drew resentment from workers and led to a string of wildcat strikes.
Mr Thorn said both unions would now continue to demand a wage increase of at least $19.
“Strikes will occur next month if there is no feedback and solution toward a wage increase,” he warned.
Keo Samphors, a 28-year-old garment worker from Yung Wah 2 Factory in Kandal province, said she had walked two hours before she reached the Assembly, adding she was determined to demand a higher wage.
“With my current wage, I cannot afford food, medical treatment and my children’s school fees,” she said, “I need at least $75 per month.”
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth denied that workers had been prevented from reaching the city and played down the numbers drawn to the rally.
“There were about 500 to 600 workers,” he said, “We didn’t prevent them from entering the city.”
Mr Naruth said workers had been stopped because traveling in groups in trucks “is not permitted by law,” adding that the Wat Botum area had been closed off because authorities sought to protect the nearby Royal Palace and Supreme Court.
Local rights groups Adhoc, Licadho, CLEC and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a joint statement yesterday denouncing the ban on the rally and the deployment of hundreds of security forces, who they said did eventually let several hundred workers gather at the Assembly.
“[W]e believe the authorities never should have decided to ban this peaceful rally,” the statement said.
City Hall’s stated reasons for the ban—protecting public order and safety and preventing damage to public property—were deemed “groundless excuses” by the groups, who said these supposed reasons “are often used to curb freedom of assembly and expression of Cambodian citizens.”
The groups went on to “condemn the attempted restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly by police and military police officers,” while also calling for “a truly open and transparent process” to review the minimum wage.