Phnom Penh Municipality decided yesterday that a large garment workers forum planned for Sunday in Wat Botum Park would not be allowed to take place, although union leaders said they would defy the order and move ahead with plans for the meeting.
According to a copy of City Hall’s minutes from a meeting between municipal deputy cabinet chief Keut Che and union leaders yesterday morning, the forum will not be allowed to take place due to concerns about public order and safety.
The minutes said City Hall banned the forum in order to “prevent it from affecting security, safety and public order in Phnom Penh.”
The municipality suggested that the Cambodian Labor Confederation–which comprises the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union and the Cambodian National Confederation–hold the event at a private venue instead.
But union leaders said they would continue to plan the forum, which they hope will provide an opportunity to consult with workers on possible labor actions to force further negotiations on the recently announced $5 increase to the minimum wage.
Ath Thon, president of CLC, said the meeting with City Hall had “failed,” but he added, “We will stick to our plan to hold a meeting in Wat Botum Park.”
Mr Thon cited workers’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
He said the forum was not a demonstration and would therefore not fall under the new demonstration law, adopted in October, which stipulates where and how a demonstration can be organized.
Asked if it would be dangerous if the prohibited meeting went ahead on Sunday, Mr Thon said, “It’s up to the police if violence would occur.” He said he expects at least 10,000 workers to attend the forum, regardless of the ban.
“We continue to invite the laborers,” he said.
The unions informed City Hall last week of their plans to hold the forum.
Wildcat strikes were held last week by garment worker resentful of a July 8 decision to raise the minimum wage only $5, to $61 per month.
The Free Trade Union supported the $5 increase, but other unions chose to continue to press for a minimum wage of at least $75 per month.
FTU President Chea Mony said yesterday his union would not join the forum because “[the] other unions and our union have a different goal.”
“They did not invite me to participate, too,” he added.
The municipal authority’s ban on the event drew criticism from human rights workers yesterday.
Rupert Abbott, development director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government could suspend the rights to freedom of expression and assembly only if it could demonstrate a convincing threat to public order.
“You can’t use [public order] as a blanket term to ban things,” he said, adding that he was not surprised by the ban, as it was “in line with the [government] crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years.”
Hang Chhaya, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 23 local rights groups, said the garment workers only wanted to express their opinion about their wages.
“If they’re not allowed [to assemble] in Wat Botum, the government should at least offer an alternative venue,” he said.