Cambodian garment workers clashed with authorities in southeastern Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province, on the border with neighboring Vietnam, on Tuesday during a week-long protest for an increase in the minimum wage and just a day after police had detained nearly 60 striking employees and dispersed crowds with water cannons.
The hour-long confrontation erupted after some workers from factories in the Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones in Svay Rieng’s Bavet township, began protesting anew, demanding a pay increase and the release of four employees arrested on Dec. 18 and 19.
The protesters threw rocks and bottles at authorities at the scene, injuring three people.
Ith Sam Heng, Cambodia’s minister of labor and vocational training, and Cheang Om, governor of Svay Rieng province, presided over an urgent four-hour meeting with representatives from four workers’ unions to discuss solutions to the protests, according to information on the Facebook page of Svay Rieng Provincial Hall.
The participants issued a statement appealing for an end to unlawful strikes and for workers to return to their jobs and appoint representatives to handle their requests.
The meeting participants also asked the provincial court to release the four workers who were arrested in addition to a group of 58 workers who were taken into custody on Monday after allegedly throwing rocks and bottles during a confrontation with police at a factory in the Tai Seng Special Economic Zone, according to Chea Oddom, provincial representative of the Cambodian Union for Movement of Workers (CUMW).
He estimated that some 8,000 workers struck on Monday, down from about 30,000 last week, according to a report in The Phnom Penh Post.
Van Vichea, the brother of one of the four arrested workers named Van Vichet, told RFA’s Khmer Service that authorities quietly arrested his sibling and another worker, Sok Kong, on Dec. 18 while they were leaving their factories for allegedly destroying factory property during the protest.
“They arrested them quietly for no [realistic] reason,” he said. “They accused us of destroying the companies, and when the factories investigated the facts through security cameras, none of our alleged activities were seen on them.”
Tens of thousands protest
The 58 arrested Monday had joined a protest by tens of thousands of workers who had been on strike at the zone since Dec. 16 to demand a raise in minimum wage from U.S $128 to U.S. $148 — eight dollars more than the figure ordered by the government in early October.
“The authorities didn’t play a role in facilitating the issue but instead threatened the protesters and used firefighter trucks’ water cannons to get them to disperse,” Chea Oddom said.
“The measures taken by the authorities angered the workers and they then began to throw rocks, stones and water bottles at them [and the factories],” he said. “After they clashed, the workers broke away from the rally and went on their way.”
According to a post on the Facebook page of the Svay Rieng provincial police commissioner, authorities arrested the 58 workers, most of whom were women, from the Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones “after they caused turmoil in the in the area.”
“[They were arrested] when they grabbed sticks and rocks and threw them toward the factories, causing damage to a number of glass windows, though the authorities intervened,” the post said.
“They were corrected by the authorities and asked to sign an agreement, then released to their individual homes at about 6 p.m. the same day,” it said.
The post also said the workers were asked to return to work by General Keung Khon, commissioner of Takeo province, which they agreed to do.
“The workers promised to go back to work, stop causing turmoil and violence, and not hold any strike again," it said. "They voluntarily agreed to return to work."
Authorities also asked the workers to sign an agreement not to hold another protest in front of the Svay Rieng’s Provincial Criminal Court, as they previously had intended.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) issued a statement on Monday, condemning the acts of a “number of extremist groups of unions and workers” who damaged factories and posed a security threat to more than 30,000 workers in the Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones.
About 45 factories producing garments, shoes, bicycles, umbrellas, lamps and other products in the two special economic zones were damaged, GMAC said, adding that it thanked the government for its timely intervention to prevent damage and losses on a larger scale.
About 700,000 garment workers are employed in more than 700 apparel and shoe factories in Cambodia, producing goods for large global brands such as Gap, Nike and H&M.
Reported by Tha Thai, Tha Kitya, Yeang Sothearin, Cheng Mengchou and Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin and Joshua Lipes.