In Cambodia, unions arrest civil society pressure | Labour rights

Phnom Penh – Cambodian union leaders had plenty of time to consider alternative courses of action before plainclothes police forced Chhim Sithar into an unmarked sedan within sight of the casino building where she worked last week.

The NagaWorld union president has been pursued by police for leading weeks of strikes and demonstrations outside two sprawling casino-hotel facilities in central Phnom Penh.

Sithar stayed away from the demonstrations, organizing union members to shuttle between safe houses to avoid detection by security officials. But as she prepared to rejoin the strikers last week, she also planned to arrest her.

“We knew from the beginning that they would use these tactics to intimidate us,” Sithar told Cambodian media VOD on Jan. 3, explaining how she took steps such as cutting her hair short to make it more manageable in prison. “[Members] Understand that if arrests prevent a strike, there is no solution, so the strike must continue. “

Police stopped Sithar outside the Australian embassy the next day for her union membership after arresting Sithar. Video captured by VOD and other media shows plainclothes officers grabbing Sithar by the limbs and dragging her into their car, fighting union members along the way.

The dramatic events marked the latest escalation in a strike that has resulted in 30 arrests since it began on Dec. 18, nine of whom have been charged with “incitement to a felony.”

cambodian trade unionCambodian unions face growing pressure amid wider crackdown on civil society [File: KIith Serey/EPA-EFE]

The strike stemmed from a labor dispute that began in April, when company management announced 1,329 layoffs, or about one-sixth of the workforce.

Some 600 workers flagged for dismissal, including Sithar, are union members whose employment is said to be protected by Cambodian labour laws, barring serious misconduct.

Although the majority had accepted the terms of the dismissal, 312 adherents continued to oppose the dismissal, saying the process had been mishandled. During the layoffs, management refused to negotiate with the union, instead ordering employees to represent themselves in severance pay discussions.

Others have accused Nagashima of not paying appropriate severance packages based on seniority and other factors. The union announced its intention to strike on November 24 when months of trying to negotiate and the involvement of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training failed to yield results.

While worker grievances are similar to many workplaces where layoffs have been made, the dispute in Nagashima is being closely watched as a bellwether for Cambodia’s civil society, which has been battered by pressure is increasing Because the country’s main political opposition was abolished in 2017 by order of the Supreme Court, which activists say is under political control.

Naly Pilorge, executive director of rights group Licadho, told Al Jazeera that the treatment of strikers at NagaWorld was just the latest example of authorities using criminal proceedings to suppress dissent.

“In a strike where hundreds of mostly female union members have peacefully rallied to demand their labor rights, no one would think it threatens ‘national security’ or causes social chaos,” Nally said. “It’s absurd, it reflects the government’s lack of tolerance for any peaceful assembly. Allegations of “incitement” [nine arrested] Union members are now being used by the government to target anyone who dares to speak out against injustice in Cambodia – whether they are labour, environmental, political or human rights activists. “

Hours before Sittar’s arrest last Tuesday, police officials held a news conference in the capital to defend the arrest of top union officials.

At a news conference, closed to media deemed critical of the government, police claimed the union was funded by an outside group and intended to “incite social chaos,” a criminal charge often used to silence dissidents. As evidence of their claims, police displayed images of bottled water at the women’s meeting, strikers holding placards and years-old photos of Sittar with a female leader of Cambodia’s exiled Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). .

public silence

Although ostensibly a private employer, NagaWorld enjoys a monopoly on gaming licenses in Phnom Penh, and in 2017 Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Manith and NagaWorld CEO Chen Lip Keong are Malaysian nationals with Cambodian citizenship.

Despite the pandemic-related recession, its Hong Kong-listed parent company, NagaCorp, is now financing the construction of a third mixed-use complex worth an estimated $4 billion, similar to other complexes in Phnom Penh.

While Cambodians themselves are legally prohibited from gambling, the publicly traded casino company has a strong position in the world gaming industry, thanks in large part to the thriving deals of Chinese junkets and VIPs.

By the time the layoffs came, the casino had already had a relatively sluggish year in business due to a collapse in foreign customer flows. NagaCorp reported a profit of $102 million in 2020, down from $521 million the previous year and $1.47 billion in 2018.

Cambodia largely avoided a severe COVID-19 outbreak in the first year of the global crisis, but was overwhelmed by the Delta variant last February, prompting authorities to temporarily close NagaWorld and other casinos in the country.

As the company’s fortunes have grown, the NagaWorld workers’ union has proven to be an effective bargaining force in previous conflicts with company management. In September 2019, Sithar was suspended indefinitely while advocating for better working conditions and higher wages. The union staged a two-day strike in January 2020 and won Sithar’s reinstatement and increased wages for employees.

Jinjie has remained openly silent throughout the controversy. Company representatives did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Since the strike began, plainclothes police, such as the one that dragged Sittar away this week, have lingered on the fringes of demonstrations, using cellphones to film unionists, journalists, human rights monitors and other bystanders.

Police began making arrests on New Year’s Eve, when union members planned to demonstrate until midnight.

Unionists were not intimidated by the arrests. About 500 people gathered on Thursday, just as they had been more than two weeks earlier, and began singing, chanting and cheering. Many held signs calling for their colleagues to be released from prison.

During Thursday’s demonstrations, Som Sophia, 50, told Al Jazeera that she was paid $80 a month as a cleaner in Naga World for 26 years and was paid $80 a month when the company was first moored on the nearby Mekong River. The river on which a boat operates. Sophia said she participated in the layoffs in April but refused to accept the severance package offered by the company.

She said she was “heartbroken” by the latest arrest.

“However, I will still go on strike,” she said. “I want Naga to sit down and negotiate with our union representatives.”

Golden Circle AllianceUnions in Nagashima have been on strike since last month [File: Courtesy of Andrew Haffner]

The union turned to direct action last month after the official labour dispute mechanism failed to find a solution. In September, the Cambodian Arbitration Council refused to make a decision on layoffs, instead asking the labor ministry to resume a months-long investigation into the company’s situation.

The Labor Department held talks between union members and management while urging strikers to end their actions. A foreign ministry spokesman recommended a press release to Al Jazeera asking the fired demonstrators to verify that they had received the correct severance pay.

Representatives for NagaWorld said on Dec. 24 that they would bring the reinstatement of the boycott to the board, although it was unclear whether that happened.

Khun Tharo, project coordinator for labor rights group Central, told Al Jazeera it was “completely unreasonable” for the government to expect demonstrators to go home and wait for a solution.

“The staff at NagaWorld have been waiting for more than six months,” Tarot said. “It is in everyone’s best interest for the strike to end, but until then, an acceptable solution is needed for NagaWorld employees.”

Tarot said the strike had been peaceful until police began arresting union members.

“The entire Cambodian independent labor movement is in solidarity with the workers of Nagashima,” he said. “This attack only strengthens our spirits, it does not weaken us.”

Despite the apparent legal threat following the arrest, union members have pledged to take to the streets until their demands are met.

Ket Pronita, a union member at Thursday’s demonstration, told Al Jazeera that although she kept her job, she joined the movement because she saw the layoffs as an existential threat to the union.

“I don’t want to leave without any justice for this, but also for the next generation who want to work here. If we don’t act now on new hires, they will end up working here like us,” said Pronita, 35.

“I will follow my heart till we have no strength [to do so], or just one person left. “

Keat Soriththeavy contributed reporting