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Cambodia Casino Union Leader Violently Arrested as Strike Drags on
Civil societies decry arrest as sacked workers continue to protest
By: Mark Tilly
A Cayman Islands-based casino operation that caters primarily to rich mainland Chinese is facing a continuing backlash in Cambodia after the operation, called NagaWorld, sacked l,300 workers, claiming Covid-19 had cut badly into revenues.
Cambodian authorities have stepped into the fray, on January 4 violently arresting the head of the NagaWorld union, Chhim Sithar as part of efforts to quell the weeks-long protest. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has issued arrest warrants for the top union leaders at the casino and police officials have argued the strike violated Covid-19 restrictions and rules on demonstrations.
On Tuesday more than 119 local civil society groups released a joint statement condemning the arrests, calling for the unionists’ immediate and unconditional release, arguing the peaceful strikes are protected under Cambodia’s constitution and labor law.
Sithar was arrested opposite the Australian Embassy in the capital Phnom Penh just before 4pm as she attempted to enter the barricades at the workers rally outside the NagaWorld casino. Videos taken by multiple news outlets show her being dragged away by multiple uniformed and plain-clothes police officers, with supporters attempting to intervene, before being bundled into a white unmarked sedan and being whisked away.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Sopheap Chak tweeted that Sithar had been questioned late on Tuesday evening without the presence of a lawyer.
“The circumstances – namely that Chhim Sithar was legitimately and peacefully exercising her fundamental freedoms at the time of her arrest – did not warrant her arrest, and even less so such a forceful one,” Sopheap told Asia Sentinel.
“Instead of using bully tactics to silence union members and labor rights activists, the authorities should support workers’ rights to collective bargaining with NagaWorld, and demand that all parties bargain in good faith to reach a settlement of this labor dispute,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Independent trade unions in Cambodia should be celebrated for their courage and perseverance despite ongoing harassment they face. The ILO should be publicly raising concerns about the blatant violations of trade union rights on display by the Cambodian government harassment and repression of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), and the failure of NagaWorld to bargain in good faith with its workers.’
NagaWorld employees went on strike on December 18 after the casino terminated the contracts including that of Sithar, who is president of the Labor Rights Supported Union. The union has called for the reinstatement of 365 workers who refused to accept the compensation package offered by the casino.
Daily demonstrations protesting the job cuts have swelled at times to over 1000 people, however, authorities have deemed the action illegal after a judge ruled the union hadn’t followed the arbitration procedures correctly.
The Hong Kong-listed parent company NagaCorp is headed by chief executive officer Chen Lip Keong. Gambling is illegal for Cambodian nationals, reflecting the complicated relationship the country – one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations - has with the industry.
Chen, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ Pandora Papers, has underlying interests in almost 94 percent of the company’s direct and underlying shares, although much of that “is through companies that he owns entirely and appear to act as shell companies: a family trust called ChenLa Foundation, which holds two companies LIPKCO Group and LIPKCO Enterprises, as well as a number of other companies wearing some mutation of Chen’s name.”
NagCorp has seen pre-tax earnings fall from US$88.7 million in the first half of 2020 to US$11.1 million in the same period in 2021 and suffered a US$77 million profit loss during that time according to the company’s interim financial report in August.
“The illegal strike has not affected the company’s operation and business,” NagaCorp assured shareholders on December 19. “All business operations and business of the group remain normal and the board believes the illegal strike has had no material negative impact on the overall business and operations of the group.”
Subterfuge to Get Rid of Union
Sithar told Asia Nikkei before her arrest that the company was using the job cuts as a way to sack union members.
"They refuse to rehire because they want to get rid of the union and among the 365 that asked for reinstatement are the entire group of active members," she said. "Whatever they use – the court authority, the arrests, the intimidation of the workers -- it will not end the dispute. The workers will continue their fight."
Since the strikes began, more than 25 people have been arrested, while six have been charged with “incitement to commit a felony” and sent to pre-trial detention and could face up to two years in prison if found guilty.
“The vague and expansive language of the Criminal Code’s provision of incitement conveniently enables authorities to arbitrarily target anyone they deem troublesome or inconvenient,” Sopheap said.
“We are dismayed by the measures taken by authorities, who failed to uphold their roles and obligations to protect strikers who conduct a peaceful strike,” said a statement by the local civil society groups. “Instead, the authorities arrested the union leaders and members, even at night, and improperly accused them of a crime. “We, the civil society groups, call for authorities to drop all charges, release all detainees, and uphold their role as public servants professionally, with accountability and impartiality, in order to find a solution to this labor dispute.”
The casino employs some 8,500 employees across its Naga 1 and 2 casinos, with Naga 3 in development, expected to employ an additional 18,000 employees once it is completed, with the combined entity to have around 5000 hotel rooms and 1300 gaming tables. NagaCorp has the exclusive license to operate in Phnom Penh until 2065.
Unions and civil society groups have called on NagaWorld to negotiate with the striking workers in good faith, saying its response so far has been little more than a blatant attempt to silence its workers’ voices.
“The legal system must not be used as a tool by which to silence workers’ voices,” a joint statement from December 20 read. “We appeal to NagaWorld, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, and all relevant local authorities to immediately make all necessary efforts to peacefully resolve this dispute.”