Protests turned violent Thursday as a group of around 2,000 Cambodian garment workers blocked a national highway and vandalized a factory operated by a Chinese company they say has refused to implement benefits ordered by a labor arbitration body.
Employees of the Manhattan Textile and Garment Corp., which operates a factory in Kampong Cham province’s Special Industrial Economic Zone, first gathered for protests to push the firm to accept the ruling imposed by Cambodia’s Arbitration Council.
But protesters became angry after receiving word that the company’s management had refused to accept their demands, pelting the factory with stones and briefly blocking National Route 6 by rolling a massive boulder onto the road.
Local officials deployed more than 200 military and regular police in a bid to restore order but the textile workers refused to yield, storming the factory and smashing the building’s windows. Police—outnumbered and unarmed—chose not to intervene.
Manhattan management staff fled the building as the protesters forced their way in. Later, factory officials sent a text message to Free Trade Union leader Chea Mony informing him that they would accept some of the workers’ demands.
Eventually, union officials called off the strike for the day. Workers expressed hope that they would return to work early next week if an acceptable solution was found.
Chea Mony called the text message “unacceptable,” adding that the factory management had refused to participate in a meeting on Thursday because they “feared for their security.”
He said he would schedule another meeting with factory officials.
“The factory must respect the law. We will talk with the factory about the text message, but if they want to invest in Cambodia, they must comply with the law,” he said.
The Ministry of Labor’s deputy labor dispute department director Khieu Savuth, who had planned to attend the Thursday meeting, said that the union and factory management must meet to resolve the issue by next week.
“The factory must respect the arbitration [decision]. If the union or the factory does not want to comply with the decision they must file a complaint with the court,” he said.
Fourth day of protests
The demonstration marked the fourth straight day of protests by workers from the factory, which supplies medical uniforms to two U.S.-based companies and a company in the UK.
Workers told RFA that they decided to storm the factory because they were tired of dealing with management for four days straight with no solution.
“The workers are hurt, so this is a consequence,” said one employee, who asked to remain anonymous.
Another worker complained about work conditions that had led to the protests.
“The factory management forced the workers to work regardless of whether they were sick. If we don’t work, they threaten to not extend our contracts,” he said.
A female worker told RFA that factory officials would sometimes force women employees to serve garment buyers during parties.
In October 2011, Cambodia’s Arbitration Council ruled in favor of the workers on five out of 12 requests, but Manhattan Textile and Garment management refused to comply, according to worker representatives.
The Arbitration Council ordered that any workers who have worked at the factory for longer than two years be recognized as permanent employees so that they can receive full benefits in addition to minimum wage.
It said that the factory must provide a bonus of two months’ salary for workers on permanent contracts who have resigned and allow workers to wear shoes at work to protect their safety.
The council also ruled that workers whose contracts were not renewed immediately after they expired should receive extra money for the time they worked without a contract.
It further said that the company must pay one month’s salary and other financial benefits to one former worker, who fellow workers claim was unfairly dismissed.
Manhattan Textile and Garment Corp. Administrative Manager Sam Seyha refused to comment on the ruling Thursday when contacted by RFA, but had previously told the Phnom Penh Post that the company would not go against an Arbitration Council decision.
He confirmed that factory management had refused to attend the meeting with union representatives Thursday because of the threat of violence after workers stormed the factory.
Sam Seyha said he was unaware of the extent to which the factory had been damaged in Thursday’s protest and that management had not yet decided whether to file a complaint with police over the issue.
Cambodia’s textile industry, which is the country’s third-largest currency earner after agriculture and tourism, has been rocked by more than six incidents of mass fainting in recent months and nearly a dozen in the past year.
They are mostly blamed on workers' poor health, bad ventilation in the workplace, or exposure to dangerous chemicals although some factory managements have disputed this.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.