Strike-Leading Union Head Arrested in Phnom Penh

The pugnacious leader of an independent workers union was arrested outside a garment factory on Phnom Penh’s industrial outskirts Tuesday morning for leading what police described as “illegal striking and an anarchic union.”

Seang Rithy, who heads the Cambodian Labor Solidarity Union Federation, a group that specializes in supporting strike activity, was arrested at about 10 a.m. outside the Cambodian-owned Apsara Garment Factory in Pur Senchey district, according to Choam Chao commune police chief Theng Kosal.

“We had to arrest him at about 10 a.m. because it was illegal striking and an anarchic union,” Mr. Kosal said.

“This union president had plans to transport bamboo sticks to the workers to make violence against the factory,” he added.

“We found 51 bamboo sticks inside his car trunk. It means that he had the intention to make trouble with the factory, and attract more workers to come out and join the protest with them.”

Mr. Kosal said the union leader was sent for questioning at the municipal police headquarters for questioning, where his car and bamboo sticks are being held.

Mr. Rithy’s union claims about 50,000 members across 20 factories, who each pay $0.50 in member fees each month and gain the right to call on the union leaders to help them lead strikes when necessary.

The union leader has said that his group is willing to lead strikes and disruptive protests at factories even when larger unions stick to negotiations with managers and decide not to engage in industrial action.

At the time of Mr. Rithy’s arrest Tuesday, about 100 of the 800 workers at the Apsara Garment factory had been protesting over demands related to a sector-wide minimum wage increase to $128, which took effect last month.

The workers have been striking since Friday and have 11 demands, including that all factory staff receive a $28 monthly salary increase—even those who are presently earning more than $100—and a daily lunch allowance of 2,000 riel, or about $0.50.

Following Mr. Rithy’s arrest, Lor Sopheak, the deputy president of his union, led about 70 of the striking workers to the municipal police headquarters, where they protested to demand his release.

“Police arresting our union president is an injustice because he did not commit a crime like he is accused,” Mr. Sopheak said. “We have not caused any violence yet. He transported bamboo sticks there only as poles for flags and banners.”

Mr. Sopheak also claimed that about 30 thugs hired by Apsara Garment had on Saturday destroyed audio equipment used by his union during strikes, and said police had not yet looked into the damage to their property.

Apsara administrative director Phanchea Sovannary denied Mr. Sopheak’s claim and said the factory had complained to police about Mr. Rithy’s union Tuesday because it was not following legal procedures for organizing strikes.

“The factory did not do that, but it was the unionists themselves who destroyed their own equipment,” Ms. Sovannary said.

“Our factory filed a complaint to the police this morning because this union had incited the workers to join the strike,” she said. “The union staged the strike without informing the factory first.”

Suos Chanara, 28, one of the striking workers, vowed to continue demonstrating for both the 11 demands and Mr. Rithy’s release.

“Tomorrow, we will come to protest in front of the factory and the police station to demand a better solution and for the release of our union leader,” Mr. Chanara said.

Tuesday was not the first time Mr. Rithy has found himself in trouble with the law. In May, the Kompong Speu provincial court issued an arrest warrant for him after he organized the burning of tires on a highway outside a factory in the province.

Six other union leaders were arrested and Mr. Rithy went on the run, saying in an interview while in hiding that he accepted that he would one day be arrested for his activities.

“When you work in this sector, you know your fate,” he said at the time.

“One day, you will be put in jail or you will be arrested—and then you fight with the law.”

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