Workers from the defunct Chung Fai Knitwear factory in Phnom Penh have decided to suspend their long-running protest after the Labor Minister threatened to arrest the demonstration’s organizers during the ministry’s annual congress last week.
Worker representative Ching Socheat, 35, told Khmer Times that they have not decided when they will resume their protest.
The group has been demonstrating for more than seven months after the owner of their factory fled the country and failed to pay them their final wages, bonuses and severance pay.
They have repeatedly asked the government and international conglomerates who bought from the factory to help them, but have yet to receive any assistance.
“We decided to suspend our protest because we are worried for our safety after we heard the Minister of Labor was seeking to arrest [the people] who incited the workers to block the road,” Ms. Socheat said.
Last Tuesday, the protesters blocked National Road 2 during a protest demanding assistance from the Labor Ministry and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in their fight to receive the compensation they are owed.
But the protest was criticized on Facebook by residents who were stuck in early morning traffic due to the rally.
The next day, Labor Minister Ith Samheng told a crowd that the people behind the protest should be arrested.
“I want to appeal to every worker that blocked the road,” he said. “This is not the best choice for this case.
“I want them [workers from the Chung Fai factory] to point and show who is inciting them to block the road. The ministry will have them tell us who the leader is.”
Ms. Socheat said the workers were not incited by anyone and had blocked the road themselves because they were angry that no one had helped them since their factory owner left most of them destitute, without the monthly wages they need to support themselves and their families.
Some of the more than 200 employees of the garment factory had worked there for at least a decade and have had trouble finding new work in an industry they say discriminates against older women because they will not work for the lowest wages.
Ms. Socheat said she and other representatives had asked the workers not to block the road because it is illegal, but they were ignored due to the group’s fury at being ignored by those who they say have the ability to help them.
“We are their representatives, but we do not have the right to stop them from blocking the road. We tried to explain to them not to block the road because it is illegal, but they did not listen to us,” she said.
Former employees of the factory who blocked the road, she added, are now worried about their safety after Mr. Samheng’s comments.
Ms. Socheat, who did not fully participate in the protest, said she was also disturbed by Mr. Samheng’s statement, but defended her actions, telling Khmer Times that the anger the workers feel about their situation is nearly impossible to control.
Khoeun Chanthorn, a 34-year-old representative of the workers, backed Ms. Socheat’s assessment, saying the workers decided to block the road themselves and were not spurred on by them or anyone else.
She said the representatives told the protesters not to block the road and did everything they could to stop them from continuing the protest.
“We are responsible for reporting information that we get to them, but we do not have the right to order them to do this or that. We tried to stop them from blocking the public road because it is illegal, but they did not agree with us,” Ms. Chanthorn said.
William Conklin, the country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity which is providing legal assistance to the Chung Fai workers, told Khmer Times last week that he agreed that protesters should not block roads and inconvenience commuters.
However, he said he wished the minister had appealed to the courts and other relevant authorities, including the Labor Ministry, to find a resolution for workers from the Chung Fai Knitwear factory.
Source: Khmer Times