The Takeo Provincial Court charged eight union representatives with incitement Sunday for taking part in a garment factory strike, bringing to 17 the number of unionists charged this month alone.
The latest in the spate of recent arrests came just ahead of today’s high-level meeting between government officials and major brands including H&M and Puma, who say they are increasingly concerned about the deterioration of workers’ rights in the country.
Takeo Provincial Court deputy prosecutor Tin Sochetra said the eight union representatives had failed to heed a recent court order instructing employees of the JSD Textile factory to head back to work.
“The eight people were charged on the 25th with incitement to commit a crime and making threats…and they did not implement the court’s decision,” he said.
Kuth Piseth, a JSD employee, said about 1,000 of his fellow workers have been on strike since April 29, the day after the factory fired one of their colleagues for collecting signatures in hopes of starting up a local union branch.
“We went on strike immediately because they fired our representative,” he said. “After we were on strike for many days and there was no solution, our representatives called the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union [CCAWDU].”
Mr. Piseth said CCAWDU started sending its representatives to the strike on Thursday—mostly helping them install loudspeakers and offering encouragement—and that the eight members were arrested after leaving the strike on Friday.
“They did not incite the workers to do anything; they just came to help us and to help find a solution for us because there was no solution,” he said.
A lawyer for the union said the eight were also charged with intentionally causing damage and were released Sunday evening pending trial.
CCAWDU president Ath Thorn, who is also facing charges of inciting violence for his alleged role in a September protest at the SL Garment factory in Phnom Penh, said the government had no right to arrest or charge his representatives.
“Even though the court uses this tactic, while some workers have been killed or put behind bars, workers and unions will keep striking if the factories do not respect their rights,” he said.
The batch of arrests were the third in a wave of apprehensions of union representatives under similar circumstances this month.
Police in Kompong Speu province arrested six union representatives on May 6 for helping workers stage a strike at a local shoe factory. The next week, police arrested three more union representatives who had joined strikes elsewhere. Like those arrested on Friday, they were also all charged with incitement.
The unions behind the strikes—mostly for higher wages and better bonuses—insist that the many recent arrests are all unwarranted and meant to cow them into ending their industrial actions in the crucial garment sector.
David Welsh, the Cambodia country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, said the number of arrests in the past few weeks, while unusually high, was unlikely to seriously scare the unions out of staging more strikes.
If anything, given the volatility in the garment sector, Mr. Welsh said the arrests could actually spark more action from workers.
“The government and industry claim to want peace and stability…unfortunately they’re going about it in completely the wrong way,” he said. “It’s certainly not going to foster industrial peace.”
Apart from the effect the arrests may have on the number of strikes to come, Mr. Welsh said, “It’s incredibly bad timing…given that this week will see major brands sitting down with the government to see what progress they’ve made” in protecting workers’ rights.
Representatives from international union groups and some major brands that source from Cambodia including H&M, Gap and Levi’s will meet with government representatives in Phnom Penh today to follow up on the labor rights concerns they raised at a similar meeting here in February.
“Despite assurances from the government in February, there have since been unprecedented levels of intimidation, violence and a declining respect for the rule of law,” the workers’ rights group IndustriALL said in a statement on Thursday.
Earlier this month, the International Trade Union Confederation ranked Cambodia among the worst countries in the world for labor rights. There was only one rank lower on the annual index, reserved for countries in which the rule of law has completely broken down, such as the Central African Republic.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)