Cambodia: labour rights defenders prevented from leaving strike site, 9 arrested, charged and questionedEvent
- Initial Date
- Dec 31, 2021
- Event Description
Police have detained at least eight NagaWorld union members on the evening of December 31, nearly two weeks after the casino workers’ union initiated a strike against alleged unfair dismissals and violations of the Labor Law.
Hundreds of terminated and active NagaWorld workers have been striking and protesting the termination of more than 1,300 workers, with one of the main demands being the reinstatement of around 300 workers who have refused to accept termination packages from the casino behemoth.
Phnom Penh Police chief Sar Thet confirmed Friday evening that at least eight union members were detained by the authorities, four of whom are being charged with incitement to cause chaos – an oft-used charge to target dissent in the country. The eight unioninsts include Chhim Sokhorn, who is a senior union leader.
Thet and labor group Central confirmed that union president Chhim Sithar was not one of the arrested unionists, despite her expressing concerns over imminent arrests.
“The ministry has opened negotiations for a solution, and authorities had called on them not to hold an illegal demonstration but they have not listened,” Thet said, adding that they routinely protested on public streets.
Sithar, the union’s president, said that the eight were arrested from the union’s office in Chamkarmon district.
“They surrounded [the office] quietly and arrested them at the union office. The [members] might not know because when it gets dark it gets more dangerous,” Sithar said.
“I am the one that they are mainly searching for. This is a threat to the right to expression, especially when they are leaders representing in the negotiations with NagaWorld.”
She said despite more than 10 days since negotiations began, there was no solution for the workers, but now authorities were arresting union members.
Negotiations among the Labor Ministry, NagaWorld representatives and the union have been at a standstill after the casino said last week its board would consider reinstating the laid-off staffers, according to a unionist.
Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said there was no need to arrest the unionists and the casino company should work to resolve the dispute with workers.
“The authorities should release all detained union activists, who have done nothing wrong and have only peacefully advocated for their colleagues’ labor rights,” Pilorge said. “NagaWorld must work with the union to resolve the workers’ demands and comply with the Labor Law.”
Around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, striking casino workers began holding each other’s hands as they faced down a team of an estimated 100 uniformed police officers.
Already, eight workers, including senior union leaders, had been arrested that evening from their union offices.
The protesters were now being prevented from leaving an area to the west of the casinos to go home, as authorities attempted to make further arrests.
“We are holding each other’s hands to prevent them from [more] arrests,” said Re Thearath. “They’re in pursuit of arresting people who have held the microphones.”
Around 9:30 p.m., police arrested a ninth worker, Touch Sereymeas, from in front of NagaWorld 2. Sereymeas had previously been misidentified as a Japanese agent in an anonymous Facebook page widely shared through government-aligned media channels.
About 150 workers remained near the Chuon Nath roundabout.
They were wary as reporters approached. “News media have distorted us a lot, especially Fresh News. They exaggerate and we are afraid of them distorting us,” Thearath said, referring to a news website that regularly serves as a government mouthpiece.
Some workers claimed that some plain-clothed officers had joined the protest pretending to be strikers, acting erratically and violently.
Around 11 p.m., more than 100 military police officers with riot shields and truncheons arrived on military trucks. Some of the soldiers carried assault rifles.
The workers were huddled near the entrance to the Phnom Penh Center, gradually moving south on Sothearos Blvd.
“We will still continue to demand justice in front of NagaWorld,” said a protester, Chhoun Sam An, despite the night’s turmoil. “We come here to protest because of the suffering, and we come from our heart.”
At midnight the workers dispersed. They said they had been successful in preventing the arrest of a 10th worker by banding together.
NagaCorp, to which the government has given a decadeslong monopoly license to operate in the capital, fired 1,300 workers last year amid major Covid-19 disruptions. Among the workers targeted for termination, however, were all top union leaders and representatives. Workers and labor groups have argued that this amounts to illegal union busting.
Around 300 workers are still contesting their terminations and pushing for reinstatement, and at one point last week the daily protests outside the casinos swelled to around 1,000 participants. Negotiations have largely stalled.
“How can they say we do it illegally, since we follow the law and procedures,” Sam An said of the strike. Workers had informed authorities, she said — though the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has deemed it illegal. “What about NagaWorld, which breached the law and silenced the union — [let’s see] whether any ministry takes any action.”
Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet confirmed several of the arrests last night and accused the protesters of violating public order.
“The ministry has opened negotiations for a solution, and authorities had called on them not to hold an illegal demonstration but they have not listened,” Thet said. A municipal police spokesperson could not be reached on Saturday.
Chhim Sithar, the Naga union’s president who has spoken of her likely arrest, said by phone that she was in the dark about what was happening to her arrested colleagues.
“So far we haven’t gotten through them and we don’t know where they’ve taken them,” Sithar said.
But the workers had known to expect problems, she added. “Even though there were arrests, they will continue to protest until there is a solution.”
In a statement to shareholders last month, NagaCorp said casino operations would continue. “[T]he Board believes that the illegal strike has had no material negative impact on the overall business and operations of the Group.”
At least six NagaWorld union members were presented for questioning before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Sunday afternoon, according to a local rights group, two days after authorities arrested 10 people in a crackdown on New Year’s Eve.
At least nine people were arrested from the Labor Rights Supporting Union office Friday evening, with the union releasing a statement over the weekend saying a tuk-tuk driver who ferried materials for the union was also arrested on Friday. A 10th individual was arrested outside NagaWorld 2.
The authorities have labeled the 14-day strike as an illegal demonstration, and hundreds of security personnel disrupted the workers’ protest on Friday night.
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s deputy director for monitoring, said six individuals had been taken to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday and then taken back to municipal police headquarters.
According to Licadho, the six unionists sent to court on Sunday were: Touch Sereymeas, Hai Sopheap, Re Sovandy, Kleang Sobin, Chhim Sokhorn and Sun Sreypich. Sam Ath said the remaining four union members were still at the police headquarters.
Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet said on Friday that the arrested individuals were being investigated on alleged incitement charges.
The LRSU statement alleged that police had used excessive force during the arrests, surrounded the union’s office with cars, seized documents, and had now blocked the premises.
Ouk Sopheakmolyka, the partner of Touch Sereymeas, said it was disappointing that the authorities acted the way they did because the protest was against a private company and not the government. Sopheakmolyka added that some workers had congregated outside the police headquarters around 3 p.m. but did not stay longer than 60 minutes.
“The authorities are the ones who implement the law but then they abuse the law, and it is unacceptable,” said Sopheakmolyka. “This is sad because this is not a killing or robbery. They just protested about their work but the authorities’ actions against them was as if this was a serious crime and they had killed human beings.”
Sopheakmolyka added that the family was prevented from meeting Sereymeas and were told to deliver items and food when the union member was taken to court.
The LRSU union called for a strike on December 18 months after NagaWorld fired around 1,300 workers amid falling profits during the pandemic. Around 300 workers say they want to be reinstated, including top union leaders who were controversially part of the layoffs.
Chhim Sithar, LRSU’s president and one of the fired workers, said the arrests were aimed at disrupting the strike, but the protest would stop only when there was a fair solution.
“The workers’ nine points have not been solved yet and instead they arrested the [union] representatives, and the protest will not stop unless there is reasonable and acceptable compensation,” she said.
Reporters did not see any protesters outside NagaWorld over the weekend following Friday’s crackdown.
Municipal police spokesperson San Sokseyha has not responded to questions.
- Impact of Event
- Gender of HRD
- Other (e.g. undefined, organisation, community)
- (Arbitrary) Arrest and Detention
- Judicial Harassment
- Restrictions on Movement
- Rights Concerned
- Freedom of assembly
- Freedom of association
- Freedom of movement
- Labour rights
- Freedom of expression
- Right to liberty and security
- Right to Protest
- Labour rights defender
- Monitoring Status
- Event Location
- Event Location
- Summary for Publications
On 31 December 2021 and 1 January 2022, workers and labour rights defenders taking part to a peaceful strike against mass lay-off were prevented from leaving the site by police, who arrested 9 of them - including WHRDs - 6 of whom were questioned by the municipal court the next day, after being charged with incitement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.