Unionists face five years in jail over 2013 strikes

Buth Reaksmey Kongkea / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Union leader Ath Thorn leads a demonstration. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday began the trial of union president Ath Thorn and his deputy Ek Sopheakkdey over strikes for better working conditions and wages for workers back in 2013.

Mr Thorn, president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, and Mr Sopheakkdey are accused of inciting about 2,500 garment factory workers to hold a strike against Chinese-owned SL Garment Factory in Meanchey district.

Between August 1 and December 12, 2013, both men allegedly incited the garment factory workers during the strike.

On November 1, 2013, the workers armed themselves with metal bars, wooden planks and rocks and forced their way into the factory to destroy and steal company equipment.

Judge Im Vannak said both of the accused were charged with incitement to commit a crime, intentionally causing damage and theft. Both men could be imprisoned for up to five years if found guilty.

Judge Vannak noted that both men were sued by Wong Kim Y, a factory management representative, who demanded $1.5 million for damages caused by the striking garment workers.

“The workers destroyed cars, motorbikes and other equipment in the factory,” he said. “After destroying factory property, they looted valuable things from their employer.”

Judge Vannak noted that the strike ended on December 12, 2013, after the Labour Ministry intervened and made the factory owner increase the salary of the workers and improve working conditions.

Mr Wong, the company representative, did not attend yesterday’s hearing.

However, in a letter dated April 23, 2015, Mr Wong’s company had already withdrawn the lawsuit. The letter was only revealed and read by a court clerk yesterday.

“The reason why I have decided to withdraw the lawsuit is because there was recommended compromise and intervention from the Royal Government of Cambodia and representatives of the Labour Ministry,” the clerk said of the letter. “My company has stopped arguing with the two accused involved in this case.”

Mr Thorn also did not attend yesterday’s trial, but Mr Sopheakkdey did and said that he denied all accusations against him.

“I only assisted the garment factory workers to get higher salaries and get the company to improve working conditions because the workers’ rights were being violated by their employer,” Mr Sopheakkdey said. “I did not, however, encourage them to commit any acts of violence, nor did incite them to inflict damage on factory property. I did not even know that the angry workers began to destroy and steal factory equipment.”

Chim Kheang, Mr Thorn’s lawyer, yesterday said his client also denied encouraging workers to steal and damage factory equipment.

“There is no clear evidence that my client had participated in the destruction of SL Garment Factory’s property. My client also did not participate in stealing their equipment,” Mr Kheang said. “My client did not commit any offence. I would like to ask the judge to drop his charges.”

Vong Bunvisoth, court deputy prosecutor, said that Mr Thorn and Mr Soksopheakkdey should still be held responsible regardless of the withdrawal of the lawsuit by the plaintiff.

“In this case, although the plaintiff had already withdrawn his lawsuit from court, the defendants are still facing accusations from the court’s prosecutor,” Mr Bunvisoth said. “I would like the judge to punish them in accordance to the law.”

A verdict is due Tuesday.

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