Cambodian police crack down on striking garment workers

PHNOM PENH: Police in eastern Cambodia used water cannons Monday to quash a protest by factory workers seeking higher wages, detaining at least a dozen demonstrators.

Seng Seila, the governor of Bavet city, where the protest took place, said police acted "because protesters threw rocks at factories and tried to disrupt other workers in the factories."

Svay Rieng Provincial Cabinet chief and spokesman Ros Pharith confirmed that protesters had been detained for questioning, but was uncertain how many. He said just a few thousand workers took part.

Keo Samorn, a 29-year-old garment worker who joined Monday's protest, said some male protesters were beaten before being taken away by truck. He said that he and others scared by the police ran to hide in nearby bushes.

Labor unions had sought to hike the minimum wage to $160 a month for next year from the current level of $128, but most agreed to accept an increase to $140.

However, some workers in Bavet's Manhattan Special Economic Zone and elsewhere are demanding they be paid $148 a month. They began striking last week, though estimates of how many were involved ranged from 2,000 to 30,000.

Wages are a sensitive issue in Cambodia, where about 700,000 people are employed in more than 700 garment and shoe factories. In 2014, the Southeast Asian country shipped about $6 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.

Factory workers in Cambodia are generally better organized and more militant than in other low-cost manufacturing countries, and also are loosely allied with the political opposition. Aggressive labor strikes around the capital, Phnom Penh, in 2014 were suppressed with deadly force and led to a crackdown on government opponents.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia asked for government intervention last week to help stop the strike, saying it is damaging the investment climate for the industry, the country's main source of exports.

The group claimed that workers on Monday had damaged or otherwise disrupted production at 45 factories in two industrial zones in Bavet that made shoes, bicycles, umbrellas, lamps and other products, and thanked the government for stopping the protesters.

Svay Rieng Gov. Chieng Om had said Thursday that the workers agreed to suspend their strike to wait for the government's response.

Khun Sokhum, provincial coordinator for the Cambodian Labor Confederation, which monitors labor protests, said Monday that the government had failed to respond to the workers' demands since they were raised on Dec. 16.