A team of disabled security guards hired to protect the embattled SL Garment Factory in Phnom Penh is seeking the formalization of their employment and an end to what they claim is the factory’s exploitation of their impairments.
In November—at the height of an occasionally violent, months-long strike by SL staff—the company stopped using a security firm owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister and installed a team of 130 mostly disabled guards hired personally by factory shareholder Meas Sotha.
After replacing a factory manager in June, Mr. Sotha became a focal point of the SL protests. Along with demands for higher wages and a lunch stipend, factory workers campaigned to have Mr. Sotha removed, saying that his emergence at the factory coincided with an increased security presence and a diminished tolerance for union activity.
Now, with no job contract and a wage of $100 a month, the disabled security guards that Mr. Sotha hired to protect the factory are turning against the unpopular shareholder.
“Who do I work for? That is what I want to know,” said chief of security Chhneas Dara, 46, who lost his left leg to a landmine in Pailin province in 1988.
“We have no contract and no way to contact Meas Sotha. We just wait here every month and hope that he comes to pay us.”
Mr. Dara said that when protests turned violent in early November and angry staff armed themselves with rocks, slingshots and other homemade weapons, his team was deployed as an unarmed human shield to protect the factory.
“Meas Sotha uses us to protect the factory against the workers because he knows that the workers don’t want to hit disabled people. And if they do hit us, it is very easy for Meas Sotha to blame them,” Mr. Dara said.
Mr. Sotha, however, insisted Monday that he was not exploiting his security staff.
“I employed them because I pity them as they are former soldiers who defended the country and were injured while working for their government,” Mr. Sotha said.
“These security guards get three meals per day, a place to stay and a salary,” Mr. Sotha said, while also confirming that the security guards have no contract with him or the factory.
Sot Samoth, an undersecretary of state at the Labor Ministry, said Monday that by law, security guards must have a contract agreement, either with a security agency or directly with the factory.
“Even if the security guards are hired one by one, they still need to have a contract with the factory—It’s the Labor Law,” Mr. Samoth said.
“If something happens to one of those guards, under the Labor Law, the factory will have problems,” he added.
Chhea Sokha, 54, another of Mr. Sotha’s hires who had a leg blown off by a landmine in 1979, said that when factory bosses and workers tussle, security guards are conflicted over which side to support.
“I know that if we join the protest it will make Meas Sotha angry,” Mr. Sokha said.
“But when the workers are calling for more money, it is hard for us to fight against them. They are angry because they are poor. How can we fight against them when we are just the poor people too?”