Camboya - Six killed, 38 hospitalised and 23 arrested in police crackdown on protest for workers’ rights

On 2-3 January 2014, the government of Cambodia used lethal violence to quash strikes and demonstrations that erupted after the government announced a new minimum wage far below what government-supported research suggested was an adequate wage.

Most garment workers are mired in poverty even after working excessively long hours. The protestors were seeking an increase of the monthly minimum wage to $160, state protection of labour rights and the right to freedom of association.

Heavily armed police and soldiers mobilised, killing six and hospitalising at least 38.

The government has since established a committee to investigate the killings and injuries, but as it lacks independence few expect any meaningful results. To date, the government has failed to provide compensation to the victims and the families of the dead.

Additionally, 23 workers were arrested for participating in the strikes and demonstrations and charged with the criminal offences of aggravated violence, damage to public property, and insulting civil servants, among other charges.

Despite repeated appeals from the UN, NGOs and trade unions, 21 workers remained in prison for nearly six months, denied bail despite the fact that some of the workers required urgent medical attention arising from injuries sustained from being beaten by police during the protests. One of the detainees died from his injuries in May 2014. Another accused, Meas Nun, was a minor throughout his detention and suffers from a developmental disability.

The workers were tried in a legal process rife with serious procedural irregularities that undermined their right to a fair trial. As late as 28 April 2014, the families of the accused reported that, although they had been detained for months, police had only questioned four of the accused.

On 30 May, the government sentenced all 23 (plus two more involved in a strike in November) to between four to five years’ imprisonment. However, due to international pressure, the sentences were suspended and all of them are free. Nine of them then went to receive medical care in Thailand for injuries sustained during the protests, paid for by rights group Licadho.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights in Cambodia and the ILO jointly stated that, “[we] are concerned about the criminal conviction of all 25 individuals, in view of the apparent procedural shortcomings in all three trials and the lack of evidence establishing direct responsibility of the individuals for the actions of which they were nevertheless found guilty. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the evidence indicates that individuals were arrested when simply exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while defending workers’ socio-economic interests.”

Unions remain concerned that the convictions will be used as a tool to limit or prohibit their future exercise of the right to associate lest they be imprisoned.

On 20 October 2014, the Phnom Penh Post reported that many of the 23 workers arrested over the January strikes were broke and out of jobs. Some claim they have been excluded from the garment sector completely. One of the convicted, Ros Sophorn, stated that he had applied to more than 20 factories since his release and had been rejected by all.

Ros said: “I’ve applied for jobs with garment factories, but they say my name was rejected because I was detained in the prison and other factories would not accept men because they are afraid they will start protests. I think my name was blacklisted, that’s why no factory accepts me.”

Further, 170 factories, represented by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), filed a court complaint against the union leaders for their alleged involvement in the 10-day strike. The complaints included claims of intention violence in aggravating circumstances during the January strike.

In October 2014, the Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng indicated that he would encourage the factories to drop the criminal complaints.

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