Cambodian police fired warning shots on Friday during a brief clash with striking garment workers demanding higher wages, an official said.
The violence broke out when military police tried to move thousands of striking workers off a road on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh, according to Am Sam Ath of local rights group Licadho.
The workers then threw rocks at the authorities who fired “many warning shots” into the air and hit protesters with their batons, he said.
Several people on both sides were reportedly injured.
Disputes over wages and safety conditions are common in Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment industry, which supplies brands like Gap, Nike and H&M.
The sector employs about 650,000 people and is a key source of foreign income for the impoverished country.
With tens of thousands of garment workers on strike on Friday across the country, activists voiced fears of further violence.
“There are a lot of workers and if authorities use force against them, the violence would spread,” Am Sam Ath said, urging unionists and authorities to hold talks to settle the problem.
The security forces said they were forced to act after workers damaged factory property.
“Because they used violence, we had to prevent them,” military police spokesman Kheng Tito said.
“If we did not fire warning shots into the air, they would have totally destroyed the economic zone.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, blamed authorities for the latest clash.
“We strongly condemn the authorities for the violence against workers who are demanding an appropriate wage,” he said.
The government announced earlier this week that the monthly minimum wage for garment workers would be increased from US$80 to US$95 starting from April next year.
The workers are demanding a minimum wage of US$160 per month next year.
Thousands of garment workers protested on Friday outside the labour ministry or joined with opposition demonstrators in the capital demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call a new election.
There have also been a series of recent protests by garment workers over poor conditions and low pay in factories, some of which have ended in violent crackdowns by security forces.
Last month a woman was shot dead and several were injured after riot police used live ammunition and tear gas to break up a garment worker demonstration.
In July the International Labour Organisation accused Cambodia of backsliding in efforts to improve working conditions in the sector.