Union Leaders Charged Over Nationwide Protests

At least five of the country’s most prominent union leaders have been charged in connection with massive garment sector strikes and demonstrations in December and January and have been called to appear in court this month, according to court officials and documents obtained Tuesday.

Nationwide protests calling for a $160 minimum wage began on December 25 and ended on January 3 when military police fired into a crowd of demonstrators on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Street, killing at least five people and injuring dozens.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, one of the unions that led the protest, said he was served his summons Tuesday morning.

The summons, signed by Investigating Judge Chea Sok Heang, says the court’s investigation into the case was completed on July 2. It says the judge decided to “charge Pav Sina, a male, with intentional violence under aggravated circumstances, intentional damage under aggravating circumstances, [threatening] to inflict damage related to a certain problem and using means to block public traffic.”

Phnom Penh Municipal Court clerk San Sakny confirmed that the court had issued documents summoning six others, including least four more union leaders, over the same charges. She said the papers had been given to local authorities who have been asked to pass them on to those charged.

“The court has processed the same charges for seven people including Rong Chhun, Ath Thorn, Pav Sina, Yaing Sophorn and Chea Mony,” she said, adding that she could not remember the other names. “They will all appear to answer to the court this month.”

Rong Chhun is president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Ath Thorn is president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, Yaing Sophorn is president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union and Chea Mony is president of the Free Trade Union.

The union leaders face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty of the charges.

Two other leaders of the protests, Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, and Sieng Sambath, president of the Worker Friendship Union Federation, were not named by Ms. Sakny.

The court orders come as the unions prepare to begin negotiations over a new minimum wage, with a raise scheduled to take effect on January 1. The nationwide protests at the end of last year came after the government announced a new minimum wage of $95, well below union demands of $160.

Mr. Sina called the court action an attempt to “break our spirits” and suggested that the government pay greater attention to prosecuting those who shot dead the garment workers in January.

“After the authorities have killed, injured and imprisoned workers…they still cannot find and bring the perpetrators to justice, while they have tried to silence the unions who help the workers,” he said.

The protests, which represented a rare show of unity in the country’s fragmented labor movement, coincided with opposition CNRP demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. As the two causes merged, tens of thousands of garment workers were turning out for daily opposition-led marches and protests based in the capital’s Freedom Park.

The extent of the violence on Veng Sreng Street was an anomaly among what were otherwise largely peaceful protests, though many factories filed complaints that they had gates and equipment damaged during the strikes.

Outside the Canadia Industrial Park on January 3, military police descended on a militant group of protesters, mostly men, who had resisted previous efforts by police to break up the demonstration and armed themselves with stones and crude Molotov cocktails. Under a barrage of stones, the military police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least five, injuring dozens and effectively quelling the protests.

The charged union leaders have previously denied any involvement in the violence on Veng Sreng Street, which the government has also tried to blame on leaders of the opposition CNRP.

Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union, on Tuesday accused the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which earlier this year submitted a legal complaint over the protests, of using the court to block the latest call from unions for a minimum monthly wage of $177.

“GMAC is using the court to threaten and intimidate these unions from sparking workers to protest for higher wages,” said Mr. Mony, who had not yet received his summons.

“These threats will not stop workers from protesting to demand higher wages since they cannot live on their current wages,” he added.

GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo dismissed Mr. Mony’s accusation, which was echoed by other union leaders.

“I don’t know where or how they arrived at that conclusion …but the case brought by GMAC has nothing to do with this,” he said.

dara@cambodiadaily.com, robertston@cambodiadaily.com

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