Five global retailers have written to the government expressing concern over what they call an apparent “pattern of violence against union leaders,” and have called for a thorough investigation of the February killing of Free Trade Union member Hy Vuthy.
The April 19 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and Minister of Labor Vong Sauth was sent by the Business for Social Responsibility—a US-based organization—on behalf of clothing giants Eddie Bauer, Gap Inc, H&M Hennes & Mauritz, Liz Claiborne and Phillips-Van Heusen.
“The recent death of Hy Vuthy, president of the Free Trade Union… at the Suntex Factory, has been brought to our attention, following on the heels of attacks against a number of other union leaders last year and the deaths of two union leaders in 2004,” the companies wrote.
“It is of the utmost importance to us as buyers that rule of law be swift, just and transparent,” the companies add in the letter.
“This ensures a business environment in which workers can freely exercise their right to freedom of association without fear of retaliation,” they stated.
Having the rule of law prevail in Cambodia “also ensures a stable business environment for us to continue to source our products,” they added.
They ended their letter by saying that they look forward “to seeing tangible progress by Cambodian authorities on the matter.”
Hy Vuthy, 36, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants in the early morning hours of Feb 24, as he drove home from work at the Suntex garment factory.
International buyers sent a similar letter of concern after the murder of FTU President Chea Vichea in January 2004. A few months after his death, FTU representative Ros Sovannareth was gunned down at a busy intersection in Phnom Penh.
According to the International Finance Corporation—an arm of the World Bank—the garment sector is Cambodia’s largest export industry with more than $2 billion in annual export revenues, employing over 325,000 workers who support more than 1.5 million people.
This makes global buyers crucial to the industry’s survival in Cambodia, the IFC points out in its overview on the industry’s productivity and competitiveness.
“The issue of violence against trade unionists is a matter of serious concern,” said John Ritchotte, Cambodia’s chief technical adviser of the Labor Dispute Resolution Project at the International Labor Organization.
“It does risk undermining Cambodia’s reputation as a safe place to source garments from,” he said.
Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Commerce Ministry Secretary of State Ok Bung said that he took the buyers’ concerns about anti-union violence to heart.
“We are worried,” he said. “We must find a way to solve this case,” he said, adding, however, that this was only one of the many problems Cambodia faces today.
Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Touch Naruth said police have arrest warrants for two suspects in the Hy Vuthy’s shooting.
“We have not been able to find them yet. We are searching,” said Touch Naruth, who declined to reveal the names and ages of the suspects, but was able to volunteer the killing was not political.
“It was a dispute within unions,” he said, without elaboration.
FTU President Chea Mony, brother of the FTU’s slain former president Chea Vichea, said that if Hy Vuthy’s killing goes unsolved, global garment buyers will abandon Cambodia.
“Three people were killed already,” he said, adding, “this is the success of the pro-government unions that don’t serve the workers interests.”
Chuon Mom Thol, president of the pro-government Cambodia Union Federation and an adviser to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, denied that his followers played any role in union killings.
“The government should make all efforts to catch the people who committed the crime,” he added.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said the anti-union violence was a concern for his organization also.
“We have already asked the [Suntex] factory in question to provide all relevant information. That’s all we can do. We are not the police. We are not the authorities. We never condone such violence,” Loo said.
“I don’t think any factory would be involved in such violence against their workers,” he added.
The global retailers’ concerns were echoed Wednesday in a letter from the Cambodian Confederation of Unions—which represents the FTU and the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association—to Juan Somavia, director of the ILO in Geneva.
The confederation asked the ILO to help create an international committee to investigate the killings of the three union leaders, mentioning that the two men charged and jailed for Chea Vichea’s killing, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, “are not the real killers.”
“The Cambodian authorities don’t intend to look for the real killers…because the murder of Chea Vichea is connected to the high-ranking officers in the government,” the CCU alleged in their letter.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith denied that Chea Vichea’s murder was politically motivated, adding that no one had produced adequate evidence that would clear the two men already arrested for the killing.
“They try to politicize the situation,” the minister added.
The ILO’s Switzerland office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.