Meas Sotha—The Man at the Center of the SL Factory Strike

Meas Sotha is not leaving the SL Garment Factory.

As tensions between management and workers have intensified over the past five months, Mr. Sotha and his role at the strike-plagued factory have moved center stage.

Workers claim that since Mr. Sotha took over from a previous SL factory administrator in June, he has taken an increasingly active role in managing staff and, they claim, stifling union activities. They accuse him of having a hand in the removal of 19 of their union leaders.

Meas Sotha, a shareholder at the beleaguered SL Garment Factory, stands inside the factory compound on November 19. (Colin Meyn/The Cambodia Daily)
Meas Sotha, a shareholder at the beleaguered SL Garment Factory, stands inside the factory compound on November 19. (Colin Meyn/The Cambodia Daily)

Now, Mr. Sotha has to go.

The Coalition for Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) has made Mr. Sotha’s removal from his position a key demand in negotiations to end their monthslong strike, which has twice turned violent.

But Mr. Sotha, a factory shareholder who holds the honorary title of “Okhna,” and is referred to as “His Excellency” by his colleagues and underlings, is not going anywhere.

It may have begun over wages and lunch breaks, but the dispute is now as much a battle of wills between two mutual bete noires: Mr. Sotha and CCAWDU.

“If they want to buy out my shares they can,” Mr. Sotha said during interviews this week at the strife-torn factory.

“Are the workers the bosses?” he asked.

At the factory on Wednesday, Mr. Sotha stood at the gate of the factory as workers left for their lunch. He picked lint off a female worker’s shirt as she passed by and jokingly checked the purse of another worker to make sure she was not taking anything from the factory.

Although much of his time these days is spent at the SL factory, speaking to staff in his office and keeping his eye on operations, he insists that he is not a manager, but rather a trouble-shooting shareholder.

“When workers have a problem, they go to the administrator. If they cannot solve it, the workers go to the boss. When they go to the boss, I educate people about Cambodian law,” he said.

A short man with a tidy, graying mustache and thinning hair slicked back and held firmly in place with gel, Mr. Sotha declined to reveal his age, but appears to be in his early 50s.

The SL factory is among numerous business ventures that he is part of, he said, after initially making his fortune selling paint, an extremely successful venture that he has now expanded to Vietnam.

Including the SL factory, Mr. Sotha said he is a shareholder in a total of three garment factories and two garment laundry facilities. He also said that he exports sand from Koh Kong to Singapore. Along with Chinese partners, he also owns cassava plantations in Battambang, Kompong Speu, Kampot and Pursat provinces that yield some 100,000 tons of the root each year.

Asked about his prominent role at the factory, Mr. Sotha denied he had one.

“What kind of power? What kind of role do I play? I don’t have one. How much is SL giving me in salary?” Mr. Sotha asked.

“I never go down and order workers to do things. The workers do not even know me.”

At his office just a few minutes down the road from the SL factory, CCAWDU President Ath Thorn railed against Mr. Sotha, and his presence at the factory that, since July, has paralleled an increasing intolerance for union activity among the firm’s employees, he claimed.

“We see he is the one who is weakening our union and blocking unions from organizing,” Mr. Thorn said.

CCAWDU, the country’s only independent union, began organizing at the factory in June 2012 and counted 3,800 members within a year, Mr. Thorn said, adding that it was the first union at SL factory that had dared to stand up to management.

“Between 1998 and 2012, the company used short-term contracts and workers were often required to work for 12 hours a day. They gave unions no rights to do anything,” Mr. Thorn said.

“That’s why the owners now are not happy. Before, they treated people like animals. Now, they must do things properly,” he said.

“That’s what makes Meas Sotha come…. They want the situation to go back to 10 years ago.”

Mr. Thorn is not the only one with strong feeling about Mr. Sotha.

During an interview on Monday in the factory’s “villa,” a dormitory housing mostly Chinese managers, SL director Joseph Kee Leung Lee, 64, said that he hardly knew who Mr. Sotha was before he returned in September from a visit to Canada to find him settled at his desk.

Mr. Sotha said he occupied Mr. Lee’s office “because I didn’t have an office. I saw empty space and I took it.”

“He [Mr. Lee] is old and sees that I have to educate workers so he found a new space,” he added.

“He had no authority at the beginning,” Mr. Lee said, noting that in recent months, as industrial relations at the factory have become more and more fraught, Mr. Sotha has taken a keen interest in keeping staff in line.

“He educates staff. Just like someone older than you telling you what is right and what is wrong,” Mr. Lee said, adding that Mr. Sotha has no official title in the management hierarchy.

Mr. Lee also said Mr. Sotha has warm relations with the military police, who have been deployed in the factory since a group of a few hundred people pillaged parts of the factory on September 20.

“He is quite familiar with the PM [military police]. They are very friendly with him,” Mr. Lee said.

“I asked him if he is a general. He just smiled,” Mr. Lee added.

Raymond Wong, a bullish Hong Kong-born businessman who founded the SL factory in 1998, also insisted that Mr. Sotha had no official role in managing the factory.

When asked about Mr. Sotha during an interview at the factory on Wednesday, Mr. Wong, 57, stormed out of the room and returned with a piece of paper on which a satellite image of Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district was printed.

Jabbing his finger at the paper, Mr. Wong explained that in 2010, a nearby lake that the factory used to source water from had been filled in. So the factory came up with a plan: set up a waste-water treatment plant on the Stung Meanchey sewage canal and send the clean water for use at the factory.

“He [Mr. Sotha] is just an investor in the waste-water plant,” Mr. Wong said in his deep, booming voice.

So why is he so involved in ground-level management at the factory? A style of management that the union and its members so detest?

“Actually, Mr. Meas Sotha has a small share in SL. So if the factory has any problem, he has to come solve the problem—just come and check what is happening,” Mr. Wong said in Chinese, which was then translated by his staff to Khmer, which was then translated to English.

As it turns out, Mr. Sotha is not new to labor disputes.

As the director and a partial owner of the Flying Dragon Garment Factory in the early 2000s, Mr. Sotha often represented the factory when speaking to the media.

In January 2003, Mr. Sotha was going head-to-head in the media with Chea Vichea, then-president of the Free Trade Union (FTU), who was assassinated a year later, amid industrial action at Flying Dragon. Some 300 of Chea Vichea’s FTU members at Flying Dragon were striking over the firing of a union leader and 11 workers.

At the time, Mr. Sotha said the 12 fired workers were making other workers nervous and hurting production. Mr. Vichea said that Mr. Sotha was trying to disrupt the organization of his union.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap, Phorn Bopha and Dene-Hern Chen)

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