The massive gray iron gate at Kong Hong Garment Co Ltd looked invulnerable on Wednesday morning.
But in minutes, striking workers reduced it to a pile of twisted metal. Then they streamed onto the factory grounds, surrounding the buildings and called to the workers inside, urging them to join the strike.
“We want to, but we can’t,’’ said workers through the glass-louvered windows. “The doors are locked.’’ After hurried negotiations, the managers agreed: they would unlock the doors, but only after the strikers retreated to Pochentong Boulevard.
So it went Wednesday as more than 1,000 garment workers took to the streets to show employers and the government they are serious about demanding an increase in the minimum wage from $40 to $70 per month.
Union organizers had said the job action was unplanned, and its impromptu nature was evident Wednesday as the workers converged on first one factory and then another in the Russei Keo district, gathering steam and supporters as they went.
Events unfolded haphazardly, with many of the marchers saying they had no idea where they were going—they just wanted to show solidarity with their co-workers.
By day’s end, union organizers said 19 factories had been shut down by the protests. Manufacturers said it was more like 10.
More protests are expected today.
Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association, said his members are feeling “frustrated, disappointed and helpless’’ in the face of the labor unrest. “It is clear that the workers can run free, and the government won’t do anything,’’ he said. The unions “must come to their senses, and use good reason, good logic and common sense.
“What they are asking is beyond comprehension.’’
The crowd first formed outside June Textile Co Ltd on Russian Confederation Boulevard, east of Pochentong Airport. By 8 am hundreds of workers were milling around the factory gates, laughing and calling to each other in evident good cheer.
At least twice, scores of strikers spilled out into the boulevard, bringing traffic on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares to a dead halt during the morning rush hour.
Each time, police moved the strikers back onto the sidewalks with determination, but without violence.
Kong Dasen, a police officer from Khan Russei Keo, said he had been working since dawn to ensure everyone’s security.
“My duty is to keep people safe,’’ he said.
The striking workers, too, remained largely polite and cooperative, responding to police orders to clear the way. From June Textile, they marched east before heading north through muddy side streets to PTE Ltd Cambodia, where they urged the workers inside to join them.
Dozens streamed out to join the throng, which cheered as each new group arrived. The next stop was Kong Hong, a much larger installation inside a walled compound on the north side of Russian Confederation.
The strikers pounded on the massive locked gates, yelling for the plant managers to open them. When they refused, the strikers set to work, saying they had to “free’’ workers locked inside.
First to fall was the row of ornamental metal spikes, ripped down as the crowd cheered. Then demonstrators used a heavy wooden table to batter the metal panels; dozens of hands grabbed the sharp edges to peel them back.
Eventually the whole gate was ripped off its hinges. But well before that, scores of workers had surged through the breached gate to surround the orderly, well-kept buildings in the factory complex.
Inside one of the buildings, dozens of sewing machines stood idle as the workers clustered uncertainly in the aisles.
“We are all workers here,’’ said Put Thol, a sad-looking middle-aged man. “We want to go out, but we can’t. They locked the doors when the gate was opened.’’
He said all workers want more wages, because it is very hard to live on a minimum wage of $40 per month. “The salary can’t support a family, not even one person,’’ he said.
“We need more money, to get more than this, but we don’t know how to do.’’
Next to him, co-worker You Houch smiled nervously. “I am so very happy to see the people demonstrating,’’ she said.
Factory managers, after conferring with police, told the demonstrators they would unlock the doors and release the workers once the strikers retreated to the boulevard.
They said later they had locked the doors, not to restrain the workers, but to protect the machinery from a mob.
“I do not force them to stay here,’’ said Yem Sary, chief administrator for Kong Hong. “It is their right. They want to stay and work, but workers from other factories disturbed them.’’
The factory’s general manager is Sok Hong, who Roger Tan said is the son of Minister of Cabinet Sok An. Sok Hong could not be reached for comment.
Both sides kept their words: as soon as the demonstrators left, the doors were opened and several hundred workers—including a smiling Put Thol—surged into the throng.
The strikers next crossed the boulevard and headed south, into a neighborhood of dirt roads and factories, interspersed with elaborate new villas.
They continued on their way, from factory to factory. Marchers say they will keep protesting until their demands are met.
Khin Sok Mony, who works at June Textile, said she just can’t make ends meet on $40 per month.
After two years in the factory, she said, “I never have any money to send to my parents in Kompong Cham.’’
She would use a salary increase to send money home and maybe buy better food, “because my health is not good.’’
Chea Phaleena, a co-worker, said she, too, cannot save.
“When I am sick, I have no money, and I must borrow from my landlord,’’ she said. “I give them one dollar of interest for $5.’’
She said the workers will stay on strike indefinitely. “I would like to appeal to the government and international organizations to intervene in this matter,’’ she said.