BAVET CITY, Svay Rieng province – The government has ordered all factories here to shut down until Thursday at the earliest in a bid to keep escalating strikes from spiraling out of control and spreading nationwide.
“[Provincial] Governor Chieng Am said in a meeting yesterday [Monday] that we should tell the factories they should close for a few days because the strike is getting bigger and bigger, but he did not say for how many days,” said In Visoth, the governor’s chief of administration.
“The government is worried the strike could spread if we do not take action soon,” he said.
The strikes started off small after the Khmer New Year holiday earlier this month, when some workers heard that colleagues at another factory had been paid a one-time $50 bonus for having not gone on strike over the past few months and decided to demand the same deal for themselves. The strikers gradually rallied more workers to their case and brought work to a standstill on Monday at more than 30 Bavet factories employing some 30,000 workers.
Mr. Am, the provincial governor, could not be reached. But the deputy governor he has assigned to deal with the strikes, Rous Chhay, said the order to shut down factories had come from the “national level,” declining to elaborate. The Interior Ministry denied involvement.
Bavet City deputy police chief Kao Horn said local commune and village chiefs were also told to stop any trucks from transporting workers to factories in the morning, and to do so until at least Thursday.
At the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which houses 22 of the city’s garment factories and has seen the worst of the latest strikes, concertina wire stretched across the front gate. Armed military police officers newly posted to the entrance stood by in the shade of a leafy tree.
Inside the SEZ’s administration office, frustrated investors were gathered around a long conference table debating their next move. At the head of the table sat Larry Kao, the SEZ’s managing director. He said the factories here were told to stay closed until Friday.
He showed reporters a video clip about a minute long of footage he said the SEZ’s closed circuit cameras recorded on Thursday. About a dozen young men could be seen through a pall of white smoke throwing rocks at a target off camera before the camera was smashed. He showed photographs of broken factory windows.
“People have the right to strike, but they have to do it by law, peacefully,” he said. “Are these people peaceful? No.”
Mr. Kao said the factories put the blame for their troubles squarely on union leader Pav Sina and a coterie of his associates for stirring the workers to action.
“Get rid of the cause of the evil, the root of the evil. It’s only a small group that causes the problem,” he said.
He insisted, however, that he was not suggesting arrest or prosecution of the unionists.
“You have to persuade…persuade a small group of people, don’t do illegal acts. This is a better way,” he said.
But Mr. Kao blamed the police and government just as much as the union leader for letting investors down.
“Their job is to keep order, but when there is disorder they do nothing,” he said. “They are ordered not to react, that’s what we heard.”
He reiterated the factories’ stance that granting the $50 bonus to workers who were never promised it was tantamount to extortion. Giving in now would only encourage them to make more “illegal” demands, he said.
He was not sure whether the shutdown order would solve the problem but was convinced the strikes would spread if it didn’t.
“Sooner or later, if their demands fail it will spread to Phnom Penh and nationwide,” he said. “For sure.”
“And if this prolongs, the investor [will] retreat,” he said. “For sure.”
In December, mass strikes at the Manhattan and Tai Seng SEZs in Bavet presaged a countrywide garment sector strike that began three days later, paralyzing production and costing the garment industry an estimated $200 million. Those strikes ended with a violent clash between workers and authorities on January 3 during which five protesters were shot dead by military police.
Mr. Sina has denied leading this week’s Bavet strikes, and his second-in-command at the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, Chheng Chhoan, did so again Tuesday.
“My union is not campaigning to demand $50 and we are not inciting workers to strike because the workers are doing it themselves,” he said.
At the Tai Seng SEZ, also overcome by strikes over the past few days, administration chief Mao Kosal said he saw no solution in sight, with the workers and factories not even on speaking terms at the moment.
“Right now the workers and the factories stand too far apart,” he said. “The workers demand $50, and the factories say no.”
For all the fear and frustration, though, Bavet was quiet Tuesday. The ramshackle dorms of corrugated tin that many out-of-town workers rent were mostly empty and locked up. Many were taking advantage of the shutdown for a quick trip home.
Preap Rattanak was one of the few workers who had stayed at his dorm, where he occupies a small room with a dirt floor. He said he had joined the strikes, but had required some convincing.
Mr. Rattanak, who makes sportswear for global brand Adidas at the Elite factory at the Manhattan SEZ, admitted that it was not fair for workers to ask factories for $50 bonuses they had not been promised.
“I didn’t want to join the strike, but most of the workers joined so I joined, too,” he said.
He said some of the strikers pelted the factories with rocks to call other workers out but denied doing so himself. Mr. Rattanak said he would actually rather have gone back to work.
“I wanted to go back to work but I couldn’t because if we had gone back the other workers would throw rocks into the factory,” he said.
But Mr. Rattanak and other workers all said they saw no sign of any union stoking the strikes.
“The workers did not force other workers to strike; the workers strike themselves,” said Thoeun, who earns $154 a month with overtime making running shoes for Asics at the Manhattan SEZ’s Kaoway factory.
Thoeun said stone-throwing strikers forced her factory to shut down on Thursday but she decided against joining them because she believed the owners when they said they would not give in and pay the $50.
Thoeun said she would strike, though, if her factory docked her wages for the days it has been closed.
Manhattan’s Mr. Kao said factory owners planned to do just that. At Tai Seng, Mr. Kosal said the factories had yet to decide.
“The factory closed,” insisted Thoeun, “so the factory must pay.”