Cambodian authorities arrested eight labor activists Monday after police cracked down on clashes between rival unions at a factory making clothing for the U.S. sportswear company Nike.
At least 11 police officers and eight workers were injured as police suppressed the riot by up to 4,000 workers at the Sabrina plant, just west of Phnom Penh.
The factory's workers have been on strike for higher wages since May 21, sources said.
Last week, authorities used stun batons to disperse workers at the factory, leaving 23 injured, including two pregnant women who suffered miscarriages in the violence.
The eight union members taken into custody following Monday’s clash had incited workers to riot and destroy factory property, National Police Commission spokesman Keat Chantharith told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They must be held responsible. They were leaders of the strike for the past 10 days,” he said.
Monday’s violence followed clashes between two unions—the Cambodian Garment Workers Union (CGWU), which had urged an end to the strike at Sabrina, and the Free Trade Union of Cambodia, which had argued that the strike be allowed to continue.
Seven of the eight union leaders arrested were members of the Free Trade Union (FTU), while one was from the CGWU, FTU spokesman Pich Ponnaray said.
The union is now working with a lawyer to represent those being held, he said.
“We have a lawyer based in Phnom Penh,” he said, adding, “We are preparing documents for the National Police Commission, but we don’t have any news [of developments] yet.”
CGWU deputy president Kong Atith denied however that a member from his union had been arrested, saying that all those being held by police were members of the FTU.
A representative from a nongovernmental organization described the clash between unions as a “shame” and urged that the factory be closed until a final settlement is reached on the strikers’ demands.
“If there is no peaceful solution, the same problems will be there when the factory reopens,” Community Legal Education Center official Huy Pichsovann said, adding that workers are now “furious” at the police because of the crackdown.
Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia secretary general Ken Loo said that though strikes and demonstrations are now a common occurrence in Cambodia, these should never involve violence or the destruction of property.
“Strikers must be held responsible,” he said. “We should let the police investigate this case.”
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, but unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.