Cambodian garment workers charged over strike violence

16 workers, union reps charged with inciting violence, damaging property

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) — Sixteen Cambodian garment workers and union representatives have been charged with inciting violence and damaging property during a strike for higher pay at a factory making clothes for Nike, a lawyer said on Tuesday.

Low-cost labour has attracted Western brands to Cambodia and garments now account for around 75 per cent of exports from the Southeast Asian country, but strikes over pay and working conditions have become common.

Up to 4,000 workers at Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing Co, which employs more than 5,000 people, went on strike on May 21. Police intervened to end protests on May 27 and on June 3, when some strikers rampaged through the factory.

Lawyer Kuch Ratha told Reuters that eight workers were in custody and the other people charged were in hiding.

"The court has denied our request for bail for the eight," he said.

The Free Trade Union (FTU), which is active at the Sabrina plant, said last week that 288 workers had been fired on June 6 and 7 for going on strike.

Sabrina said in a statement on Tuesday that only 62 employees had been dismissed and that was for violent conduct during the stoppage, not for just going on strike.

"Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing Co. regrets having to take this action but feels strongly that threats to our workers' safety, property damage and violence cannot be ignored," it said.

The strikers wanted Sabrina to give them US$14 a month to help pay for transport, rent and healthcare on top of their US$74 minimum wage. Sabrina says it already pays more than the minimum.

The FTU said about 300 members remained on strike as the company had not met their demands.

Sabrina said a state mediation body, the Strike Prevention Committee, had declared the strike over. Some 94 employees had not shown up for work and were considered to have given up their jobs, but it would welcome an application if they wanted to come back.

FTU President Chea Mony said those who had stayed away did so because they feared they would be implicated in the violence.

"This is discrimination against the union -- Sabrina doesn't want another union inside the factory," Chea Monysaid.

Members of the rival Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union did not take part in the strike.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) monitors pay and working conditions at many factories in Cambodiabut strikes and sometimes violent protests have been on the rise as unions emboldened by a shortage of skilled workers push for higher wages and improved safety.

Strikes by the more than 300,000 garment workers in the country nearly quadrupled last year to 134, industry body the Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia says. The 48 strikes this year already exceed those in the whole of 2010 or 2011.

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