Cabinet officials rejected a new petition brought by former NagaWorld employees Thursday, stating that the petition did not meet administrative requirements. Protesters were hopeful that Prime Minister Hun Manet and his new government might solve the dispute that has dragged on for nearly two years.
Kim Sokha, 35, worked at NagaWorld as a card dealer for over 10 years before being laid off by the company in 2021. As many previous petitions filed before the July elections were unsuccessful, he said this new petition was an attempt to see if Prime Minister Hun Manet would help them find a solution.
“I want him [Hun Manet] to know about the suffering of the workers. He is like a parent who knows the suffering of his children,” he said. “I want him to know that Nagaworld’s workers were unfairly dismissed which violates the law of Cambodia.”
Around 30 members of the Labour Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld gathered at Wat Botum Park Thursday morning, as district workers prepared decorations for the upcoming Water Festival. After entering the nearby Cabinet building, an official refused to accept the petition, claiming that it did not meet certain specifications, such as listing the names of the certain officials and the union members involved in the dispute.
“If what I said is not followed, I cannot do anything,” the Cabinet official told the group.
Around 1300 workers began their strike in December 2021 following mass layoffs without full severance pay at the Phnom Penh casino. The company claimed the Covid-19 economic downturn necessitated the layoffs. But rights groups like the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) and Human Rights Watch have said the layoffs were an attempt to quash NagaWorld’s independent union.
The strikers have faced detention, threats and violence. One striker said she had a miscarriage last year because of rough handling by authorities who rounded strikers onto a bus. A NagaCorp chief CEO’s son was accused of throwing a traffic cone at protestors and chucking a union member’s phone to the ground.
The president of NagaWorld’s union Chhim Sithar was found guilty in May and sentenced to two years in prison for inciting social unrest, while other convicted members have been handed suspended sentences. In October, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s verdict for Sithor.
Strikers say that the Labor Ministry has unfairly sided with the company and supported its interests, while the government has suppressed union members’ right to strike.
LRSU Vice President Chhim Sokhorn said he was disappointed when the petition was rejected based on an administrative issue instead of getting a substantive response to their request.
“I request that he [Hun Manet] help us regarding our criminal lawsuit and our leader who is also now in prison,” he said. “Even though we follow all the procedures, we all suffer and the government has not taken action on this issue.”
Labor Ministry spokesperson Katta Orn said the company was forced to lay off the 1300 workers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, adding that a majority of the workers have already accepted compensation offered by the company.
“We observe that only 22 to 30 people are on strike. If the workers really want to end the dispute, they should contact the ministry to continue finding a solution,” he said.
Government spokesperson Pen Bona declined to comment.
The workers have suffered “all forms of intimidation, all forms of violence,” said Central’s program manager Khun Tharo. He added that the government has used Covid-19 restrictions to prevent protests and the judicial system to combat the workers’ cause.
If the new government creates judicial reform, this could help the workers seek justice, he said, but only if these reforms help ”real victims” and not “perpetrators of violence.”
“We see the new government has visited garment factories, while the NagaWorld workers continue their strike and are seeking the solution after being laid off,” he said.
Sokha, the union member at the protest, said the former NagaWorld employees’ strike is within their legal rights.
“We strike in accordance with the Constitution and follow all legal procedures. If what we have been doing is illegal, we would not be here now” said Sokha.