With new garment factory strikes only one week away, union activists are using new means to spread the strike call, trying to duck harassment from factories and arrest by police.
Union leaders say members have been fired for handing out leaflets promoting the April 17 to 22 stay-at-home strike. They say police have detained others or confiscated their supplies. While those detained were soon released, police and government officials continue to warn of arrest if pamphleting continues.
Undeterred, the eight unions planning the strike for higher wages are turning to radio and social media to thwart the threats.
“We are spreading the information about the upcoming days off through Facebook, VOD [Voice of Democracy] and Radio Free Asia,” said Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.
When union leaders are interviewed by independent media outlets, they make sure to plug the strike, Ms. Sophorn said.
Sor Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said some unions also are using their own websites and Lina, the free online messaging service, to spread digital copies of the strike leaflets.
“Because we have limited finances, we have limited means,” he said. “So we hope that by informing workers they will share it with their friends and family.”
Ath Thorn, who heads the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said they were spreading the word by Women Radio FM 102, by Mohanokor Radio FM 93.5, and even by CTN, a television station owned by business magnate Kith Meng, known to have close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Our message will reach 20 percent of the workers, but they will help us reach 60 percent,” Mr. Thorn said. “We have no other way since the government does not allow us to demonstrate or march, so this is all we can do to push the government and the factories to find a solution for us.”
The unions’ main demands, outlined in their leaflets, include a boost to the garment sector’s minimum wage from $100 a month to $160, and the immediate release of 21 men still in jail after a wave of arrests during the last strikes, in early January. Those strikes came to a violent and abrupt end after military police shot into a crowd of protesters on January 3, killing five and injuring dozens more.
Despite their turn to the airwaves and Internet, the unions aren’t giving up on old-fashioned fliers.
Mr. Thorn said the eight union groups have printed about 100,000 fliers in all and still have roughly 20,000 left to hand out.
Dozens of union activists fanned out late Wednesday morning along Veng Sreng Street—the site of January’s killings—to distribute flyers to workers on their lunch break.
“We are not worried about our safety,” said Pav Sina, who heads the Collective Unions of Movement of Workers. “If the government accuses us of incitement, it’s normal for the government, because we are not pro-government.”
Incitement has been the CPP government’s go-to charge for anyone handing out leaflets with a message it doesn’t like, whether they’re actually inciting a felony or not. Rights groups say the government’s definition of incitement is too broad, using it to clamp down on comments that should be protected by law.
Amid the latest round of leafleting from the unions, municipal authorities have continued to threaten arrest. But they refuse to say exactly what laws give them the right to make the arrests.
On Wednesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Government spokesman Long Dimanche gave up the pretense of a legal basis for the threats.
“It is not the law, but it is the rule that they have to ask permission from City Hall before any institution or company distributes leaflets in public,” he said.
Mr. Dimanche did not explain where the rule came from.