Cambodia: Striking garment workers shot by police

Striking garment workers, who were fired on by police, protesting in Phnom Penh.

At least three strikers were killed on January 3 when police in Cambodia opened fire to break up a protest by garment workers.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police deputy head Chuon Narin claimed three were killed and two others wounded in a suburb of the capital. Police fired AK-47 rifles after several hundred workers blocking a road began burning tyres and throwing objects at them.

Police described the protesters as "anarchists destroying public and private property".

Human rights campaign Adhoc observer Chan Saveth said his group had tallied three dead and 10 hurt -- seven apparently with gunshot wounds.

Workers at most of the country's almost 800 garment factories are on strike, demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $177 a month, double the current rate.

The violence comes amid daily protests by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call elections. He won elections last July but the protesters accuse him of rigging the vote.

Although the wage and election issues are not directly linked, the opposition has close ties with the country's labour movement. On December 29, many workers joined a massive political rally organised by the opposition.

The workers represent a potent political force because the garment industry is Cambodia's biggest export earner, employing about 500,000 people in garment and shoe factories.

The Garment Manufacturers Association locked out the workers last week, claiming it feared sabotage by protesters. The situation puts pressure both on the workers, who go without pay, and the government, which relies on garment export revenues.

The government is close to factory owners, but their association asked on January 2 that their members be allowed to export equipment to other countries because they were unable to operate in Cambodia.

The wages standoff presents Hun Sen with a dilemma, as growing violence could drive the workers into a tighter alliance with the opposition, providing a vast pool of people for their increasingly confident street demonstrations.

[Reprinted from Morning Star Online.]

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