At least eight female garment workers were injured on Monday in clashes with Cambodian riot police, who used shields and electric shock batons to end a protest over a factory closure, witnesses and a union said.
Some demonstrators were pushed to the ground and shocked with batons when police with guns and riot gear were deployed to forcibly end a road blockade by an estimated 1,000 female workers who were demanding unpaid wages and compensation after a local factory went bankrupt.
The clashes were the latest setback for an industry that forms a vital part of Cambodia’s fledgling $10 billion economy. The garment sector was badly hit during the global economic slump from 2008 and more recently has been plagued by strikes over low pay and working conditions.
“Police were ordered to beat up workers, some were hit in the heads and shoulders and others were pushed to the ground,” said Chhoeun Chanthy, a 30-year-old garment worker . “We were not afraid, we were peaceful.”
Chea Mony, president of the Cambodia’s Free Trade Union (FTU), told Reuters the total number of injured was unknown and some workers were being held in police custody.
“This is very serious. These workers were only in dispute with employers,” Chea Mony said. “This violence is not justified,” he said, adding that a government committee tasked with dealing with such disputes was “useless”.
Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naruth declined to comment and a legal representative for the factory was unavailable.
Garment manufacturing is Cambodia’s third-biggest currency earner after agriculture and tourism. About 30,000 jobs were lost in 2009 after a drop in sales to the United States and Europe.
The downturn led to a strike by more than 210,000 garment factory workers last year and more mass strikes have been threatened over a controversial move by the government to regulate trade unions.
Cambodia exported garments, textiles and shoes to the value of $2.3 billion in 2009, down from $2.9 billion in 2008. According to the World Bank, the sector is in recovery and exports grew 24 percent in 2010 after a 20 percent contraction.
An estimated 300,000 of Cambodia’s 13.4 million people work in the sector and send vital cash to impoverished rural villages where many people live on less than $1 a day.