By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, Jan 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The termination of about 1,200 staff from garment factories in Cambodia supplying brands including H&M and Marks & Spencer after a mass strike has sent a ripple of fear through the industry, experts said, warning of fresh unrest.
Thousands of workers from factories in and around Phnom Penh went on strike last week amid fears bosses were plotting to circumvent a new government edict to pay - and backpay - bonuses based on length of employment.
A court found the strikes were illegal and ordered workers back to factory floors. About 1,200 who ignored the order had their contracts torn up, labour groups said.
The sackings fuel longstanding anxieties about job security and the fight for decent working conditions in Cambodia's largest industry, which employs about 700,000 people and accounts for 40 percent of gross domestic product.
"It sends a kind of fear through the industry, particularly for those workers who have a limited knowledge of the law," said Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights.
"It is not 100 percent clear how the new rules should be implemented, and I am concerned that without more education on that, we could be headed toward another period of labour unrest."
Cambodia's garment sector has been the subject of international scrutiny since 2014, when five striking workers were shot dead during clashes with security forces.
Some brands, including H&M, have said they are committed to improving the lives of those in their supply chain, but workers and advocates say they are still struggling to make ends meet.
The minimum monthly wage hit $182 this year, up from $61 in 2012, and the government's new seniority payments, accrued with each year of service, were seen as another step forward.
However, with the scheme to cost employers tens of millions of dollars and the first payments due in June, Tharo said it was possible that some factories would "cash out" in the coming months.
"Some of the smaller factories ... will not be able to afford to stay in operation and make the payments, so what will they do?" he said.
In a televised speech on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned workers across the country against striking, saying factories would shut down and leave them empty handed.
Muth Ron, a seamstress for more than 10 years at a factory that supplies Marks & Spencer, said fears of being left empty handed had spurred the strikes.
Factory management, she said, had begun trying to replace worker ID cards and have them sign new contracts - a strategy, workers believe, to wipe clear accrued benefits.
"We were afraid that they were not going to pay, so we started making our demands," she said.
Taing Meng, a lawyer representing the factory, dismissed those claims and said all the terminated workers aside from about 50 who had incited the industrial action could return and would keep their accrued benefits.
A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said the brand was in communication with factory bosses and would "cancel contracts and cease trade" with suppliers that breached their global sourcing principles.
A spokeswoman for H&M, which sources from a factory that has laid off more than 200 staff, said "around 100 workers have voluntarily left" and that H&M was monitoring the situation.
Cambodia's $7 billion garment industry is at a crossroads, with its biggest export markets reacting to a recent erosion of democracy.
The European Union is currently reviewing special access it gives Cambodia to the trading bloc, and a U.S. senator this week introduced a bill that would do the same there.
"The sackings send a chilling message," said William Conklin, Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based charity promoting labour rights.
"But these factory workers are very brave people. In the face of intimidation and harassment from employers and management, they will continue to assert themselves." (Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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