Phnom Penh – Before police in civilian clothes forced Chhim Sithar into an unmarked sedan within sight of the casino complex where she worked last week, the Cambodian trade union leader had plenty of time to consider alternative actions.
The president of the union at NagaWorld has been wanted by police for her role in leading a week-long strike and protest outside the few sprawling casino hotel facilities in downtown Phnom Penh.
Sithar stayed away from the protests and organized the union members as she moved between safe houses to avoid detection by security officers. But while she was preparing to rejoin the strikers last week, she also planned for her arrest.
“We knew from the beginning that they would use this tactic to intimidate us,” Sithar told Cambodian media outlet VOD on January 3, explaining how she took steps such as cutting her hair short around it. to make more manageable in prison. “[Members] understand that if the arrests stop the strike, there will be no solution, so the strike must continue. “
Police arrested Sithar the next day when she joined the union members where police stopped them just outside the Australian embassy. Video captured by VOD and other outlets shows officers in civilian clothes grabbing Sithar by her limbs and dragging them to their car and fighting union members along the way.
The dramatic events were the latest escalation in a strike that has led to the arrest of 30 people, nine of whom have been charged with “incitement to commit a crime”, since it began on 18 December.
The strike stems from a labor dispute that began in April, when company management announced the dismissal of 1,329 employees, about one-sixth of the workforce.
About 600 of the workers marked for termination, including Sithar, were union members whose service was allegedly protected by Cambodian labor law, except in cases of serious misconduct.
Although most accepted the terms of their dismissal, 312 persevered continued to fight for their termination, arguing that the process had been handled improperly. During the retrenchments, management refused to negotiate with the union, instead ordering employees to represent themselves in severance talks.
Others have accused NagaWorld of not paying proper severance pay based on seniority and other factors. When months of protracted negotiations and the involvement of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training did not yield results, the union announced its intention to strike on 24 November.
Although the workers’ grievances are similar to those of many downsizing workplaces, the dispute at NagaWorld is being closely watched as a bell-ringer of Cambodia’s civil society, which growing pressure since the country’s main political opposition was abolished in 2017 by order of the Supreme Court, which according to activists is politically controlled.
Naly Pilorge, executive director of the rights group Licadho, told Al Jazeera the treatment of the NagaWorld strikers was just the latest example of the authorities using criminal proceedings to keep a lid on opponents.
“No one who looks at this strike, of hundreds of mostly women union members who gather peacefully to claim their labor rights, can possibly argue that it threatens ‘national security’ or causes social disorder,” Naly said. “This is absurd, and it reflects the government’s lack of tolerance for any peaceful assembly. Charges of ‘incitement’, filed against [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 labor, environmental, political or human rights activists. “
Sithar’s arrest last Tuesday comes hours after police officers held a news conference in the capital to justify the arrest of top union officials.
At the news conference, which was closed to media that are considered critical of the government, police claimed the union was funded by outside groups, with the intention of “inciting social chaos”, a criminal charge often used to silencing dissidents. As proof of their allegations, police displayed images of bottled water, strikers holding signs and a years-old image of Sithar with a female leader of Cambodia’s banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a women’s conference.
Although apparently a private employer, NagaWorld enjoys a monopoly on gambling licenses in Phnom Penh and is widely believed to be linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party following a 2017 leak of alleged phone messages between Hun Manith, a son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Chen Lip Keong, CEO of NagaWorld, a Malaysian citizen with Cambodian citizenship.
Despite the pandemic-related downturn, its Hong Kong-listed parent company NagaCorp is currently financing the construction of a third multi-complex complex valued at $ 4 billion close to the other in Phnom Penh.
Although Cambodia itself is legally banned from gambling, the publicly listed casino company boasts a powerful place in the world’s gambling industry, largely due to a previously active trade of Chinese junkets and GDPs.
By the time of the retrenchments, the casino had endured a year of relatively sluggish business due to the collapse of its stream of foreign customers. NagaCorp reported $ 102 million in profit in 2020, down from $ 521 million the previous year and $ 1.47 billion in 2018.
Cambodia largely avoided serious outbreaks of COVID-19 for the first year of the world crisis, but was overwhelmed last February with the Delta variant, which prompted authorities to temporarily close NagaWorld and the rest of the country’s casinos.
As the company’s fortune grew, the NagaWorld Workers’ Union proved to be an effective bargaining power in previous clashes with company management. Sithar was suspended indefinitely in September 2019 while advocating for better working conditions and higher wages. The union went on a two-day strike in January 2020 and won Sithar’s reappointment, plus wage increases for staff.
NagaWorld maintained a public silence throughout the dispute. Company representatives did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
Since the strike began, civilian police such as those who dragged Sithar away this week have been floating on the side of protests, filming union members, journalists, human rights observers and other bystanders with their cellphones.
Police started making arrests on New Year’s Eve when the union members planned to argue until midnight.
Union members were not deterred by the arrests. On Thursday, a crowd of about 500 gathered as they sang, sang and cheered for more than two weeks ahead of time. Many held signs asking that their colleagues be released from prison.
At Thursday’s rally, Som Sophea, 50, told Al Jazeera she had worked as a cleaner at NagaWorld for 26 years, starting at a salary of $ 80 a month in the company’s earliest days, when it operated from a ship moored in nearby Mekong. River. Sophea said she was among the April retrenchments but refused to accept the severance pay the company offered.
She said she was “heartbroken” at the recent arrests.
“However, I will continue to continue the strike,” she said. “I want Naga to sit down and negotiate with our union representatives.”
The union’s turn to direct action last month came after official labor dispute mechanisms could not find a solution. In September, Cambodia’s Arbitration Board refused to issue a decision on the retrenchments, instead asking the Ministry of Labor to resume an already months-long investigation into the situation at the company.
The Labor Ministry conducted negotiations between union members and management while encouraging the strikers to end their actions. A ministry spokesman quoted Al Jazeera as saying in a press release asking fired protesters to verify that they had received the correct separation.
Representatives of NagaWorld said on December 24 that they would bring the issue of reinstatement of the endurance to the board, although it is unclear if this ever happened.
Khun Tharo, a program coordinator with the labor rights group Central, told Al Jazeera it was “completely unreasonable” for the government to expect the protesting workers to go home to wait for a resolution.
“NagaWorld workers have been waiting for more than six months,” Tharo said. “It is in everyone’s best interests to end the strike, but NagaWorld workers must be provided with an acceptable solution before it can happen.”
Tharo said the strike was peaceful until police began arresting union members.
“The whole of the Cambodian independent labor movement stands in solidarity with NagaWorld workers,” he said. “These kinds of attacks will only serve to strengthen our spirit, not to weaken us.”
Despite the clear legal threat following the arrests, union members have vowed to take to the streets until their demands are met.
Ket Pronita, a union member at Thursday’s rally, told Al Jazeera she had joined the action despite her work because she saw the retrenchments as an existential threat to the union.
“I do not want to leave without any justice for this, which is also for the next generation who want to work here. If we do not act now for new workers, they will end up like us here, ”said Pronita (35).
“I will continue to get through my heart until we have no strength [to do so], or only one person is left to come. ”
Keat Soriththeavy reported