Violence Escalates in Garment Factory Labor Demonstrations

Violence against labor protesters escalated Wednesday, as police and authorities tried to interrupt demonstrations centered around alleged unfair work practices by four garment companies.

In three separate but related incidents, one man was seriously beaten, police cattle-prodded and slapped worker demonstrators, and three truckloads of protesters were forbidden to enter city limits.

Some human rights and labor officials criticized the government’s handling of the Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s protests, which underscore problems with Cam­bodia’s labor practices, which fall below international standards. Other officials said the protests could frighten off international investors.

Violence erupted early Wed­nesday morning in front of the Tack Fat garment factory in Phnom Penh, where on Tuesday police had punched and kicked protesters and confiscated film from labor monitors. Witnesses said police clashed with protesters and employees alike Wed­nesday morning because some of the employees wanted to join the demonstrations.

One worker, Chon Kong, was beaten up inside the factory by a security official. He named the security supervisor as Chea Soeun.

Chon Kong said Chea Soeun accused him of being a “spy” when he couldn’t produce his worker card as proof of his employment. Chea Soeun or­dered four security guards to hold his arms, Chon Kong maintained. Then Chea Soeun punched him in the face repeatedly, Chon Kong said in an interview Wednesday, his eyes blackened and his nose cut.

Asked about the incident Wed­nesday by telephone, Chea Soeun denied Chon Kong’s version of events.

Chea Soeun said the fight had been between two workers. He said he wanted only to break up the fight and did not get close to the two combatants.

Meanwhile, more than 40 police outside the factory—which employs more than 3,000 workers—faced off with 800 demonstrators with electric sticks, according Nget Sreyvann, one of the demonstration organizers.

When demonstrators began to march, police tried to break it up with cattle prods and slapping people. No one was seriously injured or taken to the hospital, but about 13 demonstrators were hurt, Nget Sreyvann.

Later Wednesday morning, three truckloads of protesters from Kompong Speu province were barred from entering the city at the Stung Meanchey bridge.

Em Sok Leang, deputy district chief of Mean Chhay district, said he ordered the blockade because the trucks were endangering lives and blocking traffic. He ordered military police from a nearby station to stop the trucks, and allowed the 170 protesters only to send a delegation ahead into the city.

One human rights official was critical of the violence and the blockade, calling it undemocratic.

“Basic fundamental rights are violated when [the government doesn’t] allow demonstrations to take place,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said actions taken “under the pretext to maintain social order” displayed a “communist mentality” on the part of the government.

However, other labor officials blamed the protesters for anarchy, saying their actions could frighten international investors at a time when Cambodia needs them to develop.

Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh called the demonstrations “unfortunate for Cambodia” and called the protesters “trouble makers.”

However, there would not be so many problems if Cambodia had in place a mechanism and law for resolving conflicts, according to Janet King, the in-country director for the University of San Francisco Cambodia Law and Democracy Project.

“Once you have such a mechanism, there would be fewer disputes and better labor conditions,” King said Wednesday, adding that Cambodia’s labor practices had not improved dramatically.

Roger Tan, secretary-general for the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said he feared the protests would ad­verse­ly effect the economy.

“Workers are now feeling very confident, so they hold demonstrations and strikes to protest only small things,” he said. “It’s bad for businesses. No foreign investors would be willing to come to invest in Cambodia where workers [unions] are strong.”



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