About 200 Phnom Penh shoe factory workers, angry over the arrests of their leaders after a riot last week, took their complaints to Phnom Penh Municipal Court Tuesday, where they confronted fire trucks and dozens of police in what they promised would be the first of several days of protest.
Although authorities made no arrests and the seven fire trucks’ water cannons—which through the afternoon stood pointed at the 200 mostly women—sat idle, the protest disrupted court proceedings for most of the afternoon. Some cases were delayed for hours as police blocked roads and restricted access to the courthouse in the wake of the incident.
The protest broke up peacefully after it began raining, authorities said.
The workers marched about 8 km from the Ming Da Footwear Co Ltd around 10 am, and began protesting in front of the court, demanding the release of their union leaders.
Authorities arrested the leaders—Sarak Mony, Kan Sambath, Keo Samneang—on charges of stealing 200 boxes of shoes after a protest over layoffs and severance pay turned violent at the factory last week. Workers rioted, destroying equipment and goods, and leveling about 80 percent of the factory, police said at the time.
Workers Tuesday accused the company of tricking their leaders into negotiations and then arresting them. Furthermore, they said it was the police and company security guards, and not workers, who made off with the missing footwear and equipment.
Tuesday’s protest was a demonstration of unity, said the workers, who belong to an unofficial union calling itself the Confederation of Trade Unions of Workers in the Independent and Democratic Kingdom of Cambodia.
“If the court charges our representatives with robbery, we are also robbers. We agreed to be in prison together,” one worker said.
Chanting “injustice” at the courthouse, workers reported that the bad blood between the employees and the factory has been brewing for several years.
“We have been patient for three years, with the boss’ factory pressure, but our patience has limits,” one worker said.
The violence broke out last week when factory managers announced layoffs of 1,000 of the factory’s 2,300 workers. Both sides tried to come up with a compromise to pay the laid off employees for four hours of work per week, just to keep some money coming in. But about 1,000 workers, fearing the layoffs would become permanent, stormed the factory.
Although the protest broke down when the rains came, workers vowed to return today and continue their vigil until their leaders are released. The group is represented by Lean Chanda, a lawyer for Legal Aid of Cambodia, who promised to try and resolve the dispute between the workers and their bosses.