Two union organizers have filed a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court claiming that the senior leaders of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) have embezzled money that was meant to be paid to workers in compensation following a dispute with factory owners.
The allegations against the leaders of CCAWDU come just weeks before a planned nationwide garment strike calling for a $160 minimum wage, in which CCAWDU and seven other unions have pledged to call on workers to stay at home for one week following the three-day Khmer New Year holiday in April.
It also follows increasing pressure from the government and factory owners to rein in the country’s labor movement after it threw its support behind the political opposition during mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen in December.
The complaint by former CCAWDU officials Um Visal and Roeun Chanthan, dated March 3 and also signed by 29 garment workers, alleges that Ath Thorn, president of CCAWDU, Kong Athit, secretary-general of CCAWDU and Ek Pheakdey, another CCAWDU official, stole $92,929 from workers following an industrial dispute that was eventually settled by the union.
The dispute began following the dismissal of 61 workers from the E-Garment factory in Phnom Penh between 2007 and 2008, and was eventually settled in March 2013 after the factory was ordered to rehire or pay compensation to the workers, according to the complaint.
Mr. Visal and Mr. Chanthan claim that the CCAWDU leaders took a cut of the settlement before distributing the compensation to the workers involved in the dispute.
“According to the 2013 [settlement], we got between $3,000 and $4,000 [per worker] but eventually we got between $1,250 and $2,700 [per worker] because the three leaders claimed that this is the amount of money we got and prevented us from telling third parties or filing a complaint against them,” the complaint states.
The complaint claims that Mr. Visal and Mr. Chanthan were offered higher salaries to keep the corruption under wraps, but instead decided to take the case to court.
“We would like the prosecutor to punish the perpetrators complying with the law,” the complaint says.
Mr. Thorn, CCAWDU’s president, denied the accusations against himself and other senior union officials and said that the complaint from Mr. Visal and Mr. Chanthan was in response to their displeasure with the positions they were offered within the union’s hierarchy following an election earlier this year.
“They wanted to be president of the CCAWDU, therefore they libel us and…try to break up the institution,” Mr. Thorn said. “They are instigating workers in order to destroy CCAWDU.”
Mr. Thorn said that all workers at the E-Garment factory had been paid the full amount that they were due in compensation, and said that CCAWDU is considering a libel lawsuit against Mr. Visal and Mr. Chanthan.
Mr. Thorn was among six union leaders who were the target of more than 150 legal complaints by factory owners following an earlier round of minimum wage strikes that ended in early January, when state security forces began violently suppressing garment worker protests, killing five workers and injuring dozens more.
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