A week after police opened fire on stone-throwing protesters from the SL Garment Factory, the company’s director said Monday he would follow an order from the Council of Ministers to reinstate 19 union activists previously fired by the firm.
Joseph Lee, SL’s director, said that the factory had no choice but to follow the government’s order, which was posted to the Ministry of Labor’s website on Friday and signed by Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Khun Chin Ken.
“If it is an order from the government, we have to follow it. We have to obey the Cambodian law,” he said of the order.
“If they [the 19 union leaders] come back, I will treat them as workers. I don’t care about the other side,” Mr. Lee said, referring to the fired workers membership in the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), which has organized three months of strikes and protests.
Huon Soeur, deputy director of the Ministry of Labor’s disputes department, also said that international brands that buy from the SL factory would help pay 50 percent of the wages that the workers have lost out on because of their months of strike action, which was another of CCAWDU’s demands to end their protests.
“The buyer will help pay the 50 percent of the worker’s payment,” Mr. Soeur said, adding that the Ministry of Labor would take punitive measures against the factory if its order to reinstate the 19 union leaders was not implemented within 15 days.
Also among the workers’ central demands has been the removal of factory boss Meas Sotha, an administrator and shareholder in the factory, who workers say is responsible for bringing in armed security guards in recent months to intimidate workers inclined to unionize. Mr. Sotha has said on several occasions that he has no intention of standing down.
“The minister will personally meet with [Mr. Sotha] and deal with him,” Mr. Soeur said, without providing any details.
“There must be a solution and we need to understand each other and we hope that the problem is ended.”
However, CCAWDU president Ath Thorn would not promise that the workers would return to their jobs as he had not received any official guarantees that clothing brands would provide his members with backpay.
“We don’t know yet which buyers will pay for the workers. Workers will return to work as usual when they get their 50 percent of the payment,” he said.
Dave Welsh, country head of the U.S.-based labor advocacy group Solidarity Center, who has been present at negotiations between SL management and CCAWDU leaders over the past week, said that he remained skeptical that SL was willing to follow the government order to reinstate the fired union leaders.
“Given the amount of money they have lost [due to the strikes], they [SL management] were giving the impression [during negotiations] that they were more than willing to see the company go under rather than reinstate the 19 [union leaders],” he said, adding that compensation for striking workers remained the “crux of any agreement.”