CAMBODIA: Police abuse their power and illegally arrest factory workers

On the morning of May 23, 2006 a police force equipped with electric batons from Dangkor district, Phnom Penh was sent to beat up and disperse a group of workers on strike in front of the Park View garment factory. During the police crackdown, two female workers Chi Noeun and Meas Vichny were badly electrocuted. The police then arrested two other female workers, Phae Saroeun and Kim Vanna, as well as two male workers, Bou Bunny and Roth Veasna, for ‘staging and incitement of an illegal strike’. When pressed to give the reasons for arrest however, deputy-inspector of the Dangkor district, Chuop Sok Heng, said the workers had been arrested and taken to the police station to explain the reasons behind the strike.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is concerned that the police arrest and charges against the workers were illegal. Firstly, under article 337 of Cambodia’s labour law, only courts of law have jurisdiction to determine the legality or illegality of a strike. The strike staged by the Park View workers had been declared illegal by no court of law, and the police had received no court order to make such an arrest. Secondly, the charge of incitement was also illegal, as Cambodia’s criminal law (UNTAC Law) requires the offence of incitement to be linked to one or more criminal offences; illegally staging a strike is not a criminal offence. Under article 337 of the labour law, a worker who defies a court judgment declaring a strike illegal and refuses to return to work within 48 hours of the judgment, is considered guilty of serious misconduct for which the punishment is simply dismissal from work. It is not a misdemeanor or felony for which the punishment is a fine or imprisonment, or both. Thirdly, as to the explanation of the reasons behind the strike, the same labour law gives jurisdiction regarding this to the Ministry of Labour and its labour inspectors, not to the police. Although article 331 of the law allows the police to intervene in order to protect non-strikers from any coercion or threats by the strikers, in this particular case there was no threat to non-strikers.

The AHRC has learned that prior to their decision to strike, the Park View workers had failed to obtain written assurances from the new factory owner that they would be paid wages and other benefits in conformity with the labour law if the factory was closed down. They demanded such written assurances when they learned that workers at a number of other factories had not received any back pay and benefits when their factories were shut down; the owners simply disappeared. The Ministry of Labour, responsible for the enforcement of the labour law, was informed of the Park View workers’ demands and their decision to strike, but was also unable to provide any assurances.

The AHRC has also been informed that strikes were happening at three other factories at the same time as at Park View; the factories of Jenuene, Chung Fai and Juska, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Workers at Jeneune demanded better working conditions and no compulsory overtime work, those at Chung Fai the reinstatement of the union shop stewards who had been dismissed, and those at Juska for better pay, shorter working hours and better social benefits. According to Chea Mony, leader of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the arrest of the four Park View workers was meant to intimidate the strikers at the three other factories.

All four workers have now been released from detention. They should never have been arrested, however. The AHRC condemns the behaviour of the police, which was not only in violation of the law, but also violated the constitutional rights of Cambodian citizens. This is yet another instance of the Cambodian government’s failure to fulfill its human rights obligations under the Paris Peace Accords of 1991.

The AHRC urges the Cambodian government to take steps to end the abuse of power by the police, in particular their abuse of the criminal law to make arbitrary arrests. The AHRC also calls upon the Ministry of Labour to improve its effective enforcement of the labour law so as to protect workers’ rights.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-117-2006
Countries : Cambodia,