PHNOM PENH May 8 (Reuters) – At least 15 people were injured when armed police broke up a protest in Cambodia on Sunday by at least 2,000 mostly female garment workers demanding unpaid bonuses after their plant was closed by a fire, police and witnesses said.
Police armed with guns, shields and electric stun batons were deployed to clear demonstrators blocking the main road to Phnom Penh’s international airport. Eight female protesters and seven police were injured.
The clashes were the latest setback for Cambodia’s garment manufacturing industry, which employs 300,000 and is a major source of revenue for Cambodia’s fledgling $10 billion economy.
Protests and strikes over factory closures and pay disputes have become increasingly common since the global economic crisis slowed demand for garments in Europe and the United States, Cambodia’s biggest markets for textiles.
Protesters told Reuters that riot police fired shots into the air to disperse workers demanding unpaid bonuses of $100 from a local firm, June Textiles, since its factory was destroyed in a recent fire. The firm had offered $20.
“This is an injustice. Some workers were hit in the head and some had broken arms. They have worked so hard for the factory,” said Ros Ratha, 32.
Lay Narang, also 32, said she saw a policeman holding a pistol to a garment worker’s forehead.
“Police had rifles and the workers only had water bottles,” she said, adding that several of her colleagues were arrested.
Phnom Penh’s police chief Touch Naruth said his officers had no choice but to disperse the protest. He blamed the injuries on a hostile crowd hurling stones, beer bottles and chairs.
“They blocked the whole road. We begged them not to block the road to the airport,” Touch Naruth said. “We pushed them a little and they turned violent on us.”
Garment manufacturing is Cambodia’s third-biggest currency earner after agriculture and tourism.
About 30,000 jobs were lost in 2009 at the height of the global economic crisis. Average monthly wages in the industry stand at about $60.
The downturn led to a strike by more than 210,000 garment factory workers last year and more mass strikes have been threatened over moves 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.
Cambodian factories produce clothes for many Western brands, including Gap Inc , Nike Inc , Marks and Spencer Group PLC , Tesco PLC , H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB (HMb.ST), Puma , Next Plc and Inditex , the world’s biggest clothing retailer and owner of Zara.