Nike Calls for Probe Into Crackdown on Cambodian Factory Workers

cambodia-sabrina-may-2013.jpg Workers demonstrate at Nike supplier Sabrina's factory outside Phnom Penh in Kampong Speu province on May 27, 2013.

Nike has called on the Cambodian government to launch an independent inquiry into a police crackdown on workers at a factory making sportswear for the U.S. multinational after reports said the violence caused two pregnant women to miscarry and left others injured.

In letters to Cambodia’s labor and commerce ministers made public on Friday, Nike expressed “deep concerns” over the May 27 incident at the Sabrina Cambodia Garment Manufacturing plant outside the capital Phnom Penh three weeks ago.

The police action came amid riots stemming from a protest by 4,000 workers outside the plant’s premises in Kampong Speu province to back claims for higher pay. Eight workers and trade union members have been detained and hundreds of employees dismissed following the violence.

“Nike respectfully requests that the Cambodian government open an inquiry using credible, independent third parties to determine the cause of the incident,” the company’s vice president Hannah Jones wrote in a May 30 letter.

“In addition, we urge the Cambodian government to consider the appropriate support for the injured workers,” it said.

Injured in crackdown

Nike said several factory workers sustained injuries after being confronted by police, who according to reports used stun batons to disperse the crowds.

Reports said the crackdown left 23 injured, including two pregnant women who suffered miscarriages after police moved in on the crowd.

In a second crackdown a week later, at least 10 workers were injured when police broke up another demonstration and arrested the eight, who are now awaiting trial on charges of inciting violence and destroying property.

Violating code of conduct

Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia President Chea Mony urged the Cambodian government to honor Nike’s request for an independent probe, saying Sabrina had wanted authorities to crack down on the demonstration in order to intimidate the strikers.

“Sabrina breached the code of conduct [that Nike has for its contractors] by inviting police and military police officials to assault the workers,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“Nike is a good buyer and we don’t want to lose them, but the factories [supplying them] abuse workers,” he said.

The eight awaiting trial include three Free Trade Union members and five workers at the factory, he said.  

Eight others have been charged but have not been taken into police custody.

Chea Mony said the violence had been provoked by the police, not the strikers, and that the wrong people had been arrested.

“The arrests are meant to threaten members of my union because the union is viewed as siding with the opposition. Our members have [in the past] been killed, arrested, and persecuted,” he said.

He said authorities had done nothing to end the labor conflict since Nike sent the letters to Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh and Minister of Labor and Vocation Training Vong Sauth on May 30.

Freedom of association

The Sabrina factory supplying Nike is part of its Better Factories Cambodia, a program established by the International Labor Organization to monitor workplaces and offer advice.

Nike had said in the letters that its code of conduct for contract manufacturers such as Sabrina requires them “to respect their employees' rights to freedom of association.”  

“Explicit in the code is our expectation that workers should be able to exercise that right safely without fear of harassment, intimidation, or retaliation,” they said.  

The workers were striking to demand that Sabrina, which employs more than 5,000 people at the plant, give them U.S. $14 a month to help pay for transport, rent, and healthcare costs on top of their U.S. $74 minimum wage.

Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, refused to comment when contacted by RFA on Friday.

Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms.

The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.

In March the Cambodian government announced a higher minimum wage of U.S. $80 per month from U.S. $61 for garment and footwear workers, though unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.

This week, Prime Minister Hun Sen cautioned about job losses if manufacturers quit the country over wage demands.

The warning came as 3,000 workers at a garment factory in Phnom Penh supplying Swedish clothing brand H&M sealed off a national highway to back demands for better salaries and working conditions.

Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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