Sam Rainsy Visits Svay Rieng’s Protesting SEZ Workers

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Monday visited thousands of workers from two special economic zones (SEZs) in Svay Rieng province who have been on strike over wages and working conditions since December 16.

More than 25,000 workers from 36 factories in the Manhattan and Tai Seng Bavet SEZs began striking last week to demand an immediate increase of the minimum wage from $80 to $154 and for their factories to stop fining workers $15 for each day they are absent from work. 

Most of the workers have remained at home since Wednesday, when 13 strike leaders were detained by police for throwing rocks at factories in defiance of an agreement to end the strike reached by union leaders and authorities.

Arriving at Manhattan SEZ, which hugs the Vietnamese border, at about 7:30 a.m., Mr. Rainsy told the few thousand workers who had turned out to strike that the CNRP supported their demands for an immediate increase to the minimum wage for garment factory workers.

“We’ve demanded an increase to the minimum wage in January next year, but the authorities and factory owners have conspired to agree to raise the wage…only in 2018, and so all of you are going to die of starvation,” he says in a video of the speech uploaded to his Facebook page.

“By 2018, when prices of goods will have increased [further], a rise to $160 will not be enough for workers, so all of you need a raise to $300 per month.”

The Labor Advisory Council (LAC) is set to meet today to decide on a number of proposals to increase the minimum wage for garment factory workers. The Council of Ministers has proposed the LAC implement a series of annual increases that will see the wage reach $160 by 2018.

Before lunch, Mr. Rainsy also accused factory owners in the Manhattan SEZ of taking their workers prisoner and refusing to allow them to join the CNRP president and the striking workers who were protesting outside.

Ou Sokhoeun, deputy chief of the provincial labor department, said that workers from some factories had in fact agreed to return to work Monday morning, but were sent home at lunch after Mr. Rainsy’s incendiary speech.

“The workers in five or six of the factories in Manhattan were allowed to return home after lunch because the factory owners were worried that the protesters would begin throwing rocks at the workers inside,” Mr. Sokhoeun said.

Mey Ley, chief of administration at the Sheico (Cambodia) Co. Ltd. factory in Manhattan SEZ, which produces spandex and neoprene garments, said that about 3,000 workers had willingly agreed to return to work at his factory and denied they had been prevented from leaving.

“We locked the door of the factory building not to detain the workers, but because we were worried the protesters would come inside and destroy our property,” he said.

Ly Hong Shin, owner of the Tai Seng Bavet SEZ, reiterated that the growing incidence of militant industrial action in his SEZ and the growing politicization of workers was making doing business in Cambodia less desirable.

“Some factories are now preparing to leave Cambodia for Burma, Vietnam and Bangladesh because of these demands for high wages…and the workers protesting every day, which causes the owners to lose their benefits,” he said.

Chheng Chhoan, the union official from the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said Sunday that he himself had lost control of the striking workers after having agreed with authorities last week to bring an end to the strike.

According to Mr. Rainsy, the strikers who have abandoned the leadership of Mr. Chhoan’s union began the process of creating their own new union Monday.

Mr. Rainsy, who returned to Phnom Penh in the afternoon Monday to join CNRP supporters in Freedom Park, added that he and other leaders of the opposition would visit the protesting strikers in Svay Rieng again this morning.

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