About 2,000 workers marking International Labor Day in central Phnom Penh on Monday met barricades and riot police who kept them from marching on the National Assembly with a list of demands, including higher wages and an end to union busting.
Unions organizing the event had initially planned to start their march miles away near Wat Phnom in defiance of City Hall, which had told the unions to scrap the walk because it would cause traffic jams. Dozens of police and district security guards had assembled in the morning near the temple and along the river by the offices of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, in anticipation of stopping them.
Just as they did last year, however, the unions quietly gathered their members and supporters outside the Russian Embassy, putting them much closer to the Assembly. Dozens more riot police and security guards met them there, too, blocking their new route and ordering them to break up.
After a two-hour standoff from about 8 a.m., the riot police briefly took formation as if to march on the packed crowd holding aloft a sea of banners proclaiming all manner of labor rights, from fair wages to support for pregnant mothers. After some negotiation between the two sides, however, police pulled back and allowed the crowd to march the few hundred meters to the Australian Embassy, within sight of the Assembly, where they were forced to stop for good.
“We do not want a confrontation with authorities, but it is our right” to march, union leader Ath Thorn told the crowd from the back of a flatbed truck. “We want to send a message about our problems and the government’s bad ideas in order to achieve freedom, a proper minimum wage and better working conditions.”
Their 19-point petition included: raising the $153 monthly minimum wage for garment workers to $207; an across-the-board $250 monthly minimum for civil servants; dropping the charges that were laid against several union leaders, including Mr. Thorn, over garment workers protests that turned violent in January 2014; and the release of five current and former human rights workers who were arrested a year ago in a bribery case widely seen as politically motivated.
Their demands also focused on winning amendments to a controversial Trade Union Law, which some unions say has made it harder to protest, form local branches and represent workers since taking effect a year ago. The International Labor Organization, which consulted with the government on several drafts, says the law falls short of Cambodia’s obligations under international conventions it has signed.
Among the unions’ main complaints are new rules that prevent them from representing workers who are not their members in labor disputes.
Now the unions “can’t represent the workers if our union is not based in that factory,” said Mr. Thorn, president of one of the largest independent unions in the country, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. “We are the union, but we have no right to represent the workers. So how can the workers have hope?”
The law has also made it harder for workers to strike, requiring buy-in from a simple majority of employees at any enterprise.
Kim Oan, a garment worker from Kandal province, said that when she and her colleagues tried to strike to protest their factory’s attempts to fire their local union leaders, the managers threatened to fire them.
“We came here to demand our rights, but do you see how they treat us?” she asked. “They pressure us. They violated our rights, but when we tried to protest they threatened to end our contracts. Since the union law was approved, our rights have been shrinking.”
Sok Soporn, another garment worker, said the government’s handling of Labor Day was a poor sign of its respect for their rights in itself.
The law requires that when authorities reject plans for a public event, they meet with the organizers to discuss alternatives. In banning the march, City Hall merely told the unions to confine their plans to their offices.
Though the workers failed to reach the front gates of the National Assembly, CPP lawmaker Lork Kheng, a member of the Assembly commission charged with upholding human rights and taking complaints, did come out to meet them and accept their petition. She said she would see that it was passed on to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We have only one day to express our opinion, but they prevent us,” Ms. Soporn said.