Cambodian garment workers return to work after deadly clashes

PHNOM PENH Tue Jan 7, 2014 3:58am EST

1 of 2. Sam Rainsy (C), president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), arrives for a news conference at the CNRP office in Phnom Penh January 7, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of garment workers have returned to work in Cambodia, ending a two-week pay dispute after authorities used deadly force to quell a strike and thwart a protest by their political allies seeking a re-run of a July election.

A union and the country's garment factory association estimated that between 65 and 70 percent of workers had returned to factories as of Tuesday.

About 350,000 had gone on strike, threatening to cripple the country's main export industry, with more than $5 billion in revenue a year coming in from big international brands such as Adidas, Gap and H&M Hennes & Mauritz.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents 521 clothing and footwear factories, put the losses suffered by members at "much more than $200 million".

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) says the general election in July was stolen by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of longtime premier Hun Sen and it wants a re-run.

Its protests and boycott of parliament in the weeks after the election achieved nothing but the CNRP started another rally on December 15, which gained fresh momentum from December 24 when the garment workers came out to join the protest.

The CNRP had promised at election time to double the minimum wage in clothing factories to $160 a month. The government offered first $95, then increased that to $100, which would be a 25 percent rise. The unions rejected that.

Last Friday, military police opened fire on workers protesting outside a factory in the capital, Phnom Penh, and four people were killed.

The following day, the authorities dismantled a CNRP protest camp in a city park and the party effectively ended its protest.

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, told Reuters workers would return to the street on January 14 when CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, appear in court to respond to charges they incited workers to strike.

Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister, said the case was politically motivated and meant to intimidate opponents of Hun Sen, who has been in power for 28 years.

"We believe that victory will not be long in coming. We will win and we demand another election," he told a news conference on Tuesday, promising to resume the protests at an unspecified date.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)

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