Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned of factory closures and further unrest as garment workers continue to protest over unpaid annual seniority bonuses.
Speaking at a meeting with thousands of garment workers in Takeo province on Wednesday, Hun Sen said the demands of the workers were unrealistic.
“Let me ask you, do we need to leave the factories to go bankrupt by collecting all the capital to provide the workers with a one-time payment and close down the factories afterward? Please consider this,” he said.
He added that factory owners had not previously paid out the annual bonus unless there were redundancies.
“In the past three or four years, there was never any provision of annual seniority bonuses unless there were layoffs,” he said, asking the workers where the demands for the bonuses had come from.
He warned workers that continuing to press for the bonuses could lead to the closure of two-thirds of garment factories in the country, without providing evidence to support the claim.
He also cautioned unions who were encouraging workers to demand the seniority pay, saying such a move was illegal. Factory owners will be required by law to pay seniority bonuses twice a year from 2019.
“So I call on the unions that lead the workers to stage protests on this issue to stop their action immediately. It's on the edge of being extreme now,” he added.
The first seniority bonus payment is due in June and a second in December.
Heng Sour, labor spokesman, urged patience from the workers.
Garment workers are also concerned by the possibility that Cambodia could be excluded from the E.U.’s Everything But Arms preferential trade scheme this year over abuses by Hun Sen’s government.
The removal from the scheme would have a devastating impact on Cambodia’s garment sector, which ships about 40 percent of its products to Europe.
Two United States senators also recently introduced a bill that could see Cambodia lose its preferential trading access to that market.
But Hun Sen claimed the greatest threat to workers’ livelihoods was from their continued demands for bonus payments.
Mu Sochua, a vice-president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, said Hun Sen was deliberately misleading workers.
“The EU determines the conditions of the EBA and Hun Sen knows very well that he must respect human rights and democracy; that includes the release of Kem Sokha and reinstatement of the CNRP. He is not telling the workers the truth,” she said in a message to VOA Khmer.
“Hun Sen went to Brussels and met the EU commissioner. He knows what the EU requirements are,” she added.
Separately, Rong Chhun, a former member of National Election Committee (NEC) and currently the Cambodian Confederation of Union leader, told VOA on Wednesday that Hun Sen should not blame workers regarding the demand for annual seniority pay.
“We should not put the blame on the demand being raised by the workers. The prime minister should intervene for the workers. We can see that now there are issues with up to four factories, and it's yet to be solved. He should find a solution to those issues and not use the stage to make political attacks and ignore the plight of the workers,” he said.
VOA could not reach Ken Loo or Kaing Monika, general secretary and vice-general secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), on Wednesday.