Unions Tell Garment Workers to Suspend Strike

Unions behind last week’s garment factory strikes said their members had largely gone back to work this week, although they have not ruled out resuming protests for a higher minimum wage later this month.

Tens of thousands of workers went on strike starting on December 24 to demand a doubling of the industry’s monthly minimum wage to $160, forcing several of the country’s 500-plus factories to shut down and many more to scale back production.

The strike turned deadly when military police opened fire directly into crowds of stone and petrol bomb-throwing demonstrators outside a Phnom Penh factory on Friday, killing at least five and wounding more than 40.

But as of Monday, some 80 percent of garment workers in Phnom Penh and more than half the workers in the provinces were back at their factories, said Chheng Lang, vice president of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia (NIFTUC), one of the six unions behind the strikes.

“Most of the workers returned to work [Monday],” she said.

Ms. Lang said the unions had urged their members to head back to work during the early part of the month—when the factories typically pay their workers—and will decide soon how and when to resume their protests.

“My [union] president plans to meet with the other union leaders to discuss and find a new strategy to continue to protest, and we will have a press conference to tell the public that we will not hide or escape from arrest,” she said, but added that they had yet to fix a date for the meeting.

On December 30, the Council of Ministers sent Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng a letter recommending that the unions behind the strikes have their licenses revoked and that their leaders be prosecuted by the law if they did not stop the protests. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has since summoned Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, to answer for the violence that broke out at some of the protests.

On Tuesday, Mr. Chhun said he did not yet know what the unions would do next.

“We want workers to stay in peace and we do not yet know our next plan,” he said.

Mr. Chhun said he would honor the January 14 court summons, however, and denied a recent claim by another union that he had been in hiding in the past few days. He said he had been out of reach because the battery in his phone had gone dead.

Oum Vasal, a legal officer for the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, also insisted that the protests would continue—both for higher wages and against the fatal shooting of Friday’s demonstrators.

“Workers are pledging to hold a mass demonstration against authorities because they used weapons to kill empty-handed protestors and we cannot accept this cruel behavior,” he said. “We will not stop protesting, we’re just letting workers take a rest to wait for a decision from our next meeting.”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said that between 50 and 60 percent of the garment workers were back on the job Monday and that the strike had effectively come to an end.

“As far as we’re concerned the strikes are over,” he said.

As for whether the workers who went on strike ought to be paid for the time they were off the job, Mr. Loo said GMAC’s position—based on the country’s Labor Law—was the same as ever.

“Our basic principle is very, very clear,” he said. “No work, no pay.”

Mr. Loo said GMAC had sent its members a circular advising them on the law and not to pay the strikers for their time off. He said the association had also met Tuesday morning to assess the damage the protesters had inflicted on factories in preparation for the compensation they would be asking for in their pending lawsuits against the unions.

Union representatives said it was too early to say whether the factories would pay the strikers any, or all, of their wages for the time they were off.

Ms. Lang of NIFTUC said she had heard from only one member from Prey Veng province where the factory was paying only half the workers’ wages for the three days they were off.

Prak Chanthoeun, director-general of the Labor Ministry’s general department of labor conflict, agreed with GMAC that the factories were legally in the right to deny the strikers pay for the time they were on strike.

But he said the ministry would be advising the factories to pay the strikers at least some of their wages in a bid to prevent more unrest.

The ministry was scheduled to meet with unions today to urge them once more not to hold any more protests, but postponed the meeting because the minister, Mr. Sam Heng, was busy.

GMAC says the recent weeks of labor unrest have cost the factories some $200 million in lost sales and would see their orders drop up to 30 percent in 2014 from risk-averse buyers.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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