Workers at a Cambodian garment factory, that provides items for big fashion brands like Diesel, Espirit and Marks & Spencer, continue to face a campaign of violence and intimidation as they fight for basic labour rights.
Nearly 300 workers from the E-Garment factory in Kandal province just outside of Phnom Penh have been on strike since January. They have been subject to threats of, and actual, physical violence.
And just last week, five activists from the Clean Clothes Campaign were detained by police after meeting with the strikers.
The striking workers belong to the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), a member of the ITUC-affiliated Cambodian Labour Confederation.
C.CAWDU members face discrimination as the E-Garment management is a closely linked to Motanakpheap Kamakor Khmer Union (MKKU), a notorious yellow union.
Almost 2900 people are employed by E-Garment and the requests of the strikers is clear: the management must implement the agreement signed with C.CAWDU to reinstate 33 union members dismissed in 2007; it must also reinstate the eight C.CAWDU union leaders dismissed after being violently attacked inside the factory by MKKU members in 2010.
Since the first day of the strike, a group of E-Garment employees affiliated to the MKKU, have been sitting outside the factory and threatening the strikers in the presence of E-Garments’ Human Resource Manager, Sok Ang.
On 6 February, the management began to hire replacement workers, an illegal practice under Cambodian labour law.
The striking workers then tried to block company vehicles from leaving the compound, but were violently removed by police.
Two female workers (including one who is nearly six months pregnant) were injured during this attack. Following hospitalisation, they are still recovering from the incident.
Iron bars and nail-studded clubs
On 21 February, a mob of about 20 thugs attacked seven C.CAWDU members, including two E-Garment workers.
“They were waiting for us at about 1.5 km from the factory,” explains one of the victims (who asked to remain anonymous).
“They used iron bars and nail-studded clubs to beat us. Before hitting, they challenged us, mentioning the strike in E-Garment. Four of us have been seriously injured and needed hospital care, but it would have been worse if we hadn’t been wearing our motorbike helmets which protected our head.”
The victims filed a complaint at the local police station and some witnesses were even able to confirm the identity of some of the attackers – known MKKU leaders – but they remain unpunished.
“The policemen told us they don’t know where to find them… which is a nonsense, since those guys are always at the factory.”
The campaign against the unions escalated on 5 March, when five visiting activists from the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) in Europe were detained and questioned for over six hours after meeting striking workers outside of the E-Garment factory.
One of those detained, Austrian CCC activist Michaela Königshofer, said: "If Cambodian police arrest international NGO representatives for simply standing outside a factory, I can only imagine about the level of union repression and lack of human rights here.
“Last month a woman from this factory who was five months pregnant was attacked. Why are they arresting us and not the people who beat these workers?"
During their interrogation, CCC activists say they saw the name ‘E-Garment’ appear on the phone screens of police officers in charge of the ‘investigation’, suggesting a level of complicity between E-Garment management and the local police.
As further evidence of E-Garment labour violations, workers speaking to Equal Times said that their company collaborates with about 10 sub-contracting factories, and that at least one of those employs teenage girls as young as 14.
In an additional memo it noted that E-Garment’s parent company – Yee Tung Garment Company, a Hong Kong-based multinational that is a member of the Fair Labor Association – is known for its labour rights violations in Jordan.
On 2 March, a supervisor of its factory Century Miracle Apparel in Ramtha ordered several male Jordanian employees to forcibly drag to work and beat female Burmese workers who were on strike against labour abuses.
WRC reports that since this attack, hundreds of Burmese workers at the factory have become so frightened that they want to return Burma.
However, the company prevents them from leaving by imposing substantial penalties in exchange of their departure – a practice that amounts to forced labour.