Intervention police protected by metal helmets and bulletproof vests stopped hundreds of female garment factory workers from marching on National Route 2 Wednesday, preventing the striking laborers from walking north toward Norodom Boulevard to wage complaints against their employer with the Ministry of Commerce.
More than 200 riot police jumped from the back of 10 paneled trucks carrying rubber batons and protective shields to stop more than 500 Terratex Knitting and Garment International Factory Ltd workers from continuing their march. The police confronted the workers near the Monivong Bridge roundabout in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Leu commune.
The confrontation is the latest in a number of crackdowns on public demonstrations, which the government has justified as a means of maintaining social order during a period of potential political instability.
“We used our forces to ban [the workers] from marching into the city because we need to protect the safety for the upcoming Asean ministerial meeting,” said Phnom Penh Deputy Police Chief Chay Sinarith. He added that police stopped workers because they did not have permission to gather.
But Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (Niftuc), said the group sent its information to local authorities but was denied permission to assemble.
Article 41 of the 1993 Constitution gives citizens the freedom of expression and assembly provided the action does not infringe upon the rights of others or disrupt order and national security.
Chay Sinarith said workers were moved to prevent a traffic jam.
The force police used was excessive, workers said. Twenty workers were allegedly pushed around by police and another worker, Meas Khmemara, was seriously injured Tuesday when a Terratex security guard Sophal Vesna struck him on the head, Morm Nhim said.
One 19-year-old worker, tears streaming down her cheeks, said the police “really scared me. I don’t understand [why they did this].” Four fire trucks and a vehicle carrying sharp metal wire used to block traffic stood by unused as police ushered the girl and her co-workers down the road.
Workers organized the march after management failed to meet their demands for improved working conditions and fair payment, Morm Nhim said.
“No GAP” was spray-painted in red on the factory’s closed gates and drawn onto workers’ T-shirts indicating their plans to use the factory’s US clothing buyer, the GAP, for leverage in attaining their demands.
Niftuc recently sent a letter to GAP managing director Donald Fisher asking him to stop buying from Terratex and apply pressure on the government to help workers receive higher monthly salaries and overtime pay, Morm Nhim said. Demands also include the reinstatement of fired workers and an end to union discrimination.
Factory representative Jimmy Sum said Wednesday that the workers’ behavior was uncalled for and asked the government to make greater efforts to protect the factory from the workers who threatened to storm the facility today. Sum said Terratex abides by the labor law and could do no more to help its employees.
“I also am a human being. I am not Jesus Christ,” he said.
With only 80 of the factory’s 4,000 employees working Wednesday, Sum said a few of his clothing orders will be transferred to factories outside the country for completion.
The Cambodian Watchdog Council, a coalition of five unions, canceled plans for another protest after several Western embassies advised it to do so, a statement said Wednesday. The coalition said it will not demonstrate during the visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell out of respect for the diplomat.
The Cambodian Defenders Project also issued a statement criticizing the government’s ban on protests Tuesday. “This gag on free speech during an election season is a major abuse of the democratic process and will compromise the legitimacy of the elections,” it said.