Cambodia Court Convicts, Releases Labor Activists

    12 June, 2014


    From VOA Learning English, this is the Economics Report.

    On May 30th, a court in Cambodia found guilty 23 clothing workers and union members. They were arrested during violent protests in January in which at least 4 workers were killed. However, the court immediately suspended the sentences.

    International companies had watched the case closely, some had threatened to reconsider using Cambodian clothing factories. Rights groups have criticized the trial. They say it is an attempt to use the courts to influence workers and the economically important clothing industry.

    Cambodia Court Convicts, Releases Labor Activists
    A supporter walks in front of a row of motorized rickshaws covered with banners supporting the 23 defendants in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)

    The 23 were arrested over a 2-day period during wage protests in January. Officials acted with live ammunition. There has been no investigation into the killings of the 4 workers.

    The defendants were charged with a number of offenses, including incitement and property damage. Legal experts said the trial did not meet international guide lines. They said the judge barred defendants from speaking or questioning witnesses.

    The courts sentence the defendants to one to four-and-a-half years, however, it then ruled to suspend the sentences to time already served. That meant the defendants would be freed.

    Dave Welsh is the country representative for the U.S.-based labor group Solidarity Center. He says the defendants and their families were pleased with the decision.

    "The main thing is there's just an enormous amount of relief - first of all with them, with their families, and with the trade union and human rights community in general - that they're going to be freed today," Welsh said.

    The clothing or garment manufacturing industry is an important part of Cambodia's economy, providing about $5.5 billion in exports last year. Factories produce clothing mainly for the European Union and the United States.

    However, unrest about pay has resulted in deadly protests. The monthly minimum wage currently stands at $100, the garment workers want that raised to $160. There is also a disputed law related to trade unions that the government wants to pass by the end of the year.

    A delegation of international clothing companies recently spoke to top government officials. Representatives from H&M, Puma and The Gap said they would find other sources for their products unless worker conditions improved. The garment industry in Cambodia employs about 600,000 workers.

    The brands offered to pay more to factories that employ workers. But they say the Cambodian government must also act by not using violence or the courts against protesters.

    And that's the Economics Report in VOA Learning English. I'm Mario Ritter.