Hundreds of union activists in Cambodia defied a government ban on a public forum for garment workers, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on Saturday 8 March.
Over 500 hundred union activists attempted to attend the rally at Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh but were met with heavy resistance by armed police who had barricaded entrances to the park.
At one stage, security guards wielding batons stormed a small group of marchers forcing them towards Naga bridge at the edge of the park. Eventually, in a tense stand off, the activists increased in number and were able to push back the security guards, while trucks carrying police with tear gas launchers patrolled alongside Freedom Park.
The leaders of 18 unions had called for a public forum to discuss an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, 80% of whom are women, and the release of 21 workers detained since a brutal police crackdown on strikes in January, which left 4 workers dead and 39 people injured.
Both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour had been invited to attend the forum to discuss union demands but instead the rally was forbidden.
“We asked 30,000 union members to attend the public forum, but after the government banned it we warned them not to come in fear of their safety,” said Ath Thorn, president of IndustriALL affiliate, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.
“So we just asked union activists to participate as we wanted to avoid confrontation with police,” he added.
“We live in a democratic country and we are upset that government will not allow us to hold a peaceful public forum. We will keep on campaigning to release the 21 workers and fight for a living wage,” said Thorn.