Harsh Restrictions Imposed on Union Leader

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday ordered embattled union leader Ath Thorn to stay away from the SL garment factory and its workers and to avoid any public gatherings that could “damage public order,” drawing a tight circle around one of the country’s most influential independent union bosses.

Mr. Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), was charged in March with inciting violence at a September 20 protest at the SL factory that turned violent, leaving at least 11 injured. An SL staff member who was hit in the eye by a rock during the clash between demonstrators and security guards filed the lawsuit against Mr. Thorn.

Union leader Ath Thorn speaks outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday. (Siv Channa)
Union leader Ath Thorn speaks outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday. (Siv Channa)

On Saturday, Mr. Thorn said, he received a court letter ordering him to post $25,000 bail within a month or be placed in pre-trial detention.

On Tuesday, Investigating Judge Chea Sok Heang effectively added an injunction to the court orders against Mr. Thorn.

“Do not meet with people to form a group to damage public order in a public area,” the latest letter reads. “Do not visit the SL factory…in order to avoid any incidents. Do not damage public order around the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Do not meet with SL workers in order to avoid violence, and do not have or hold any weapons.”

If Mr. Thorn breaches any of the conditions, the letter adds, the court can again order him to be placed in pre-trial detention.

Court deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok and clerk San Sakny, who also signed the letter, both declined to comment on the new orders and referred questions to the judge, who could not be reached. The SL factory’s general manager, Koh Chong Ho, also declined to comment.

The new orders came the same day that about 300 of Mr. Thorn’s supporters protested in front of the municipal court against his scheduled questioning that day in a separate case in which the union leader is accused of embezzling about $93,000 from members. The court postponed the questioning in the face of the growing protest outside its doors.

Mr. Thorn denounced the new orders against him.

“They don’t allow me to meet in public, so how can we do, because I am the union leader. It’s not fair,” he said.

“It’s very strong pressure to us, because we try to challenge the factory to raise [the] salary to $160,” he added.

As one of the leading non-government aligned union leaders in the country, Mr. Thorn has been raising the ire of garment factory owners and government officials for several years. In 2010, Labor Ministry Secretary of State Oum Mean personally threatened him with a lawsuit for ignoring orders to stop organizing a public forum of union members in the heart of Phnom Penh.

Recently, CCAWDU was among the leading unions behind several weeks of crippling strikes for a $160 monthly minimum wage for the garment sector that ended abruptly when military police fired into crowds of protesters in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing five and injuring more than 40.

Mr. Thorn said he will appeal Monday’s court orders in the coming days but will obey the restrictive conditions in the meantime.

Along with the other unions behind the latest strike, CCAWDU is again planning to rally supporters at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on May 1—International Labor Day—to keep pressing their demand for a higher minimum wage. Mr. Thorn conceded that the new court orders could make it harder for his union to join the planning but would not stop the others from following through.

“If they don’t allow us, our unions members can join with other unions to do this event,” he said.

Municipal government spokesman Long Dimanche said the city received the union’s request to hold the event Tuesday but declined to comment on their chances of getting approval. The city currently has a blanket ban on public gatherings, which was brutally enforced on Monday when Daun Penh district security guards violently assaulted a small group of opposition CNRP supporters gathered near Freedom Park.

Moeun Tola, who heads the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, a legal rights NGO, called the latest court orders against Mr. Thorn “ridiculous” and a breach of workers’ right to association.

“The court needs to learn more about the freedom of association,” he said, citing its guarantee in international law, the country’s Labor Law and Cambodia’s own Constitution.

“The workers elected their leader to represent them…so the way the court orders the members from meeting their leader, it definitely violates their right to association,” Mr. Tola said. “If the court was independent, it would not do this way.”

He said Mr. Thorn had gained a high profile over the years not only in Cambodia but abroad, thanks in part to the membership of CCAWDU and the Cambodian Labor Confederation—which he also heads—in several international labor organizations.

“His reputation, his actions, are known not only in Cambodia but internationally,” he said.

CCAWDU claims 70,000 members and branches in 96 of the country’s 500-plus garment factories, including SL.

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