At least eight people required medical attention yesterday morning after Phnom Penh police forcefully broke up a labor protest by thousands of garment workers who had blocked traffic in an attempt to gain Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attention.
Though protesters claimed that they were unarmed, police reportedly struck demonstrators in the face and fired their guns into the air to disperse the crowd of about 2,000 former employees of the June Textile Co garment factory who have been locked in a dispute over severance pay since the factory was destroyed by fire in March.
Demonstrators had gathered at the site of the former factory on Russian Federation Boulevard in Sen Sok district, where they said they blocked traffic for an hour, mistakenly believing that Mr Hun Sen would travel down the road after arriving at the airport in the morning. The premier instead returned from a meeting in Jakarta yesterday evening.
Two women, Peng Chou, 38, the factory’s Free Trade Union organizer, and union member Meas Narin, 32, were arrested, according to a statement released by three human rights organizations, who denounced the “brutal” use of force. Injuries included head wounds, trauma and lacerations. Ms Narin has since been released, according to Chan Soveth, chief monitor at Adhoc.
“Police also reportedly drove motorbikes deliberately into the crowd, which was made up predominantly of women,” said the statement, issued by Adhoc, Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center.
The city’s chief of police later defended the use of force, claiming protesters had become violent, throwing rocks.
Protesters interviewed yesterday said a total of 20 people had been injured.
“They threw rocks at us and pushed us to the ground. They beat us with sticks,” said Pheng Phy, 27, a former employee. “Workers have only empty hands, but they have guns.”
Sunday’s protest was the latest in a string of demonstrations staged by former employees. Workers were promised just $20 per year of employment–an amount union leaders and workers have said is unacceptable. Talks between union leaders, who are asking $150 for each year of service, and factory officials, who refuse to budge, have broken down several times in the past month.
Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, insisted that the ministry is working to resolve the dispute but said neither side would budge.
“They continue [to try] to solve the problem but it’s not finished because the ministry is not the one who will pay the money. Only the employer will pay,” he said. “We will continue to [aid] negotiations.”
Workers yesterday appeared despondent.
“I feel like I’ve suffered very much,” said Meas Sopheap, 46. “I want to pour gasoline on myself and burn myself to death in the center of the road. We have the same Khmer blood [yet] they punched me in the face once, kicked me twice, and tore down my shirt.”
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth told the news agency Reuters that the crowd had provoked a violent response by throwing rocks at police.
“They blocked the whole road. We begged them not to block the road to the airport,” said Mr Naruth. “We pushed them a little, and they turned violent on us.”
Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police Commissariat, declined yesterday to comment on the protest but said Interior Minister Sar Kheng had repeatedly told police not to resort to violence.
“I haven’t received reports on this case, but there was a speech by the deputy prime minister recently saying not to use violence against people,” he said.