PHNOM PENH, Dec 20 (Reuter) - Cambodia's Interior Ministry on Friday told garment workers it did not recognise their newly formed union and warned them this week's protest march was illegal.
"If there is another case like this, and it affects security and public order, or there is danger to a demonstrator's life, the demonstration leader will have to respond in front of the law,'' the Interior Ministry said in a statement read out on local radio.
More than 3,000 workers were locked out of Cambodia's largest garment factory, Cambodia Garments Ltd, on Thursday when they demanded better working conditions, sparking the third labour protest in a week.
Human rights workers said the demonstration, including a 10 km (six mile) march, was the largest in Cambodia since December 1991, when student protests were violently suppressed. Despite the stern government response, representatives of the 10-day-old garment union, the Free Trade Union of Khmer Workers, said they succeeded in meeting King Norodom Sihanouk for more than two hours on Friday. No details were immediately available.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who helped form the new union, said factory owners had agreed to modest concessions, including a pay rise from $35 to $37 per month, an eight-hour work day and more pay for overtime work.
"It's a beginning. We must be realistic that we can't achieve everything immediately,'' he told a news conference. But Kong Yee Cheng, executive director of Cambodia Garments, told Reuters no final decisions had been made, only noting that workers had returned to their jobs on Friday.
He was scheduled to meet the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Labour later on Friday.
Sam Raisy, who heads the Khmer Nation Party, dismissed the Interior Ministry statement as "rubbish.''
"There is a fear (among government officials) that this (the union) will spread through Cambodia,'' he said. A delegation of Hong Kong garment manufacturers who were scheduled to visit the factory left Cambodia on Friday with some reservations about the unrest.
"I believe some companies are interested in investing here...but they may be more cautious than they were before,'' said Michael Kong, director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council for Indochina.
Cambodia has 34 garment factories employing more than 16,000 workers, according to the Ministry of Industry. Garment manufacturing is one of the country's fastest growing sectors.