Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday accused the Cambodian government of pressing charges against some of the country’s most prominent union leaders in order to get its way in ongoing wage negotiations and urged foreign donors to push leaders to drop the “politically motivated” case.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court this week charged at least five union leaders for their alleged roles in nationwide garment-sector strikes in late December and early January. They are accused of aggravated violence and damage, making threats of destruction, and obstructing traffic.
A court clerk on Tuesday identified five of the suspects as union leaders Rong Chhun, Ath Thorn, Pav Sina, Yaing Sophorn and Chea Mony, and said two other people, whose identities she said she could not recall, were also included in the case.
In its statement on Thursday, HRW also identifies union head Morm Nhim as one of the charged suspects.
“Cambodian authorities are pursuing trumped-up charges against labor activists in an apparent attempt to get them to abandon demands for better pay and conditions,” Brad Adams, the New York-based advocacy group’s Asia director, says in the statement.
The charged union leaders were among those who helped organize the demonstrations in December and January calling on the government to raise the garment sector’s monthly minimum wage from $95 to $160. The strikes came to a bloody end on January 3 when military police shot into a crowd of protesters in Phnom Penh, killing at least five garment workers and injuring dozens more.
The government has agreed to raise the minimum wage next year and is in negotiations with the unions and factories over how much to raise it by. But the $150 or more some unions are demanding is far above what the government and factories say they are willing to pay.
In its statement, HRW calls on Cambodia’s foreign donors to pressure the government to drop the new charges against the union leaders.
“Cambodia’s donors should make it clear that they will not accept another round of politically motivated prosecutions and demand that these cases be dropped,” Mr. Adams says.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, speaking on the sidelines of a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday, said the case was out of the government’s hands.
“We cannot stick our hands into the court system…. The court will do its duty and we cannot intervene,” Mr. Sam Heng said.