As NagaWorld union members attempted to resume their strike Monday, police used a public health rationale to detain about 60 of the protesters, forcing them onto a bus and taking them to a quarantine facility on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Police and other security forces on Monday barricaded roads near the NagaWorld casino complex to prevent the strikers’ renewed protest. Those who were detained were confronted in the afternoon by authorities at the intersection of Sothearos and Sihanouk boulevards.
Members of civil society groups monitoring the strike watched authorities shove workers into the bus. A video clip of the detention posted on Facebook shows authorities wearing plainclothes yelling to those on the bus that the gathering was prohibited and that the workers would be taken to quarantine.
“I don’t understand, we have already tested negative twice and finished quarantine,” a woman can be heard saying in a clip before being dragged into the bus. “We just need three meals a day because our stomachs are hungry, why are police using this physical abuse?”
After a striker tested positive for COVID on Feb. 4 during a routine pregnancy checkup, public officials demanded the rest of the striker group test for the virus and self-isolate for a week even upon receiving a negative result. The striker who tested positive reported she had not attended an event for three weeks prior to her diagnosis. Monday’s strike was to be the group’s return to their labor action after complying with orders of the municipality and Health Ministry.
Meanwhile, a lawyer representing four NagaWorld strikers who were summoned to appear for questioning on Friday last week for allegations of obstructing Health Ministry measures, were told to return by Phnom Penh police saying their cases had already been sent to court.
Keut Chhe, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, told CamboJA the workers were brought to a quarantine center in Prek Pnov district. The purpose of that, he said, was to determine if there were workers among the group who had not yet tested twice for COVID.
He said 879 workers went to provide test samples, and of that about 500 returned to test at the end of the demanded quarantine period. About 300 people had not taken the second test, Chhe said.
“We have taken [them] to verify whether they have already been tested or not,” he said.
Chhe said workers found to have not complied with the COVID measures declared against the strikers could face penalties such as reprimands or fines. He also pointed to a Feb. 15 City Hall announcement that the strikers were not allowed to hold the demonstration and needed permission from authorities.
Phnom Penh Municipal police chief Sar Thet warned police would arrest workers who come to protest amidst the ongoing surge of detected Omicron infections in Phnom Penh.
“So, [they] stubbornly come to protest which does not respect the measures of the health ministry. It is wrong to make this mistake, and the competent authorities will implement law,” he said.
“I appeal to the person who comes to strike [at NagaWorld] if they have thoroughly considered this. If they do not, we will take legal action.”
He said that Nagaworld workers who have been tested for COVID must be quarantined regardless of the test’s outcome.
Union member Nop Tithboravy, 38, who works in the casino company’s food and beverage section, said she was disappointed by the official crackdown on the labor dispute. Authorities had also called on the strikers to relocate their protest to Freedom Park, in the far north of the city, which the union rejected.
“We will not hold the strike at Freedom Park because we have had a labor dispute with the company,” Tithboravy said. “We don’t have messages to exercise at Freedom Park because our voices will not be heard by the company.”
NagaWorld employees have been striking since late November in a bid to reinstate the holdouts of a mass layoff of 1,300 workers. The strikers have also demanded the calculation of accurate severance pay for those who were laid off. Nearly two months ago, authorities also arrested and imprisoned a group of 11 union leaders, including union President Chhim Sithar, on criminal charges including incitement.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the rights group Licadho, said UN human rights experts have criticized the use of public health laws to curtail the strikers.
He said that measures to prevent COVID should include “the resolution of labor disputes that have not been resolved yet” such as that of NagaWorld.
“I think that they will hold the strike another day if there is still no solution,” he said.