Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Collective of 73 rights groups rejects NagaWorld layoff plan

Ferry passengers look out at the NagaWorld hotel and casino from the ferry in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Ferry passengers look out at the NagaWorld hotel and casino from the ferry in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A wide assortment of workers’ rights and civil society organizations issued a joint statement Thursday rejecting the ongoing mass layoff of NagaWorld employees and labelling the downsizing as a clear attempt to bust the casino company’s union.

The open letter was signed by 73 different groups working to promote human and labor rights in Cambodia. These organizations said in their statement that the casino company’s plan to lay off more than 1,300 workers is intended to eliminate the voice of the union and further the control by management of NagaWorld employees.

“This company’s intention is that they do not want the presence of the union,” the statement read, dismissing NagaWorld’s claims that the layoffs are purely motivated by economics. “This is an opportunity for them to exploit the worker’s benefits and to impose poor working conditions.”

The layoffs would amount to a cut of almost one-sixth of the total workforce of roughly 8,000 at the casino giant following its April 8 announcement of the downsizing, which executives attribute to the financial impacts of the pandemic. The global rise of the novel coronavirus hurt business operations at the casino complex for nearly a year before forcing the temporary closure in March of NagaWorld facilities after some employees there tested positive for COVID-19.

However, as the joint letter from civil society and labor rights groups pointed out, NagaWorld as a company has continued to perform well. Its net profits peaked in 2019 at $521 million and for 2020 fell to a little more than more than $102 million despite the impacts of COVID-19. Meanwhile, NagaWorld employees worked minimal hours or had their jobs suspended. Now, as the layoff dispute gathers momentum, the new construction of the $4 billion Naga 3 facility is proceeding as normal, with that complex expected to require an additional 4,000 employees when completed.

NagaWorld management also sent layoff notices last month to three top leaders of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), including President Chhim Sithar and General Secretary Chhim Sokhon. The three joined other union members in rejecting the layoff plan.

Chhun Sokha, vice president of the NagaWorld union, welcomed the support of the other groups to combat what she described as “injustice happening to the union leaders” of the LRSU.

Sokha said the Labour Ministry has invited representatives of the workers to meet on June 14, to provide details related to the union’s complaint.

Heng Sour, spokesman of the Ministry of Labour, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did NagaWorld human resources manager Hein Dames, who has remained publicly silent since the start of the layoff dispute.

NagaWorld management had previously suspended Sithar’s employment which sparked a union mobilization in January 2020, drawing thousands of LRSU members to successfully protest for her reinstatement. Months after that, once the pandemic had begun, hundreds of unionists protested after NagaWorld stopped providing wages to staff during periods of suspension when the government decided to temporarily close casinos as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. 

“The plan to dismiss Ms. Chhim Sithar, other union leaders and these 1,329 workers is aimed at attacking the union which has only peacefully advocated for the labor rights of its members,” read the joint statement issued Thursday, which comes just two days after LRSU members petitioned the Labour Ministry to intervene in the mass layoff.

On a similar note, the letter from the 73 labor and civil society groups also called on the Royal Government to inspect and monitor the ongoing NagaWorld dispute.

Kong Athit, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions (CCAWDU), said the termination of union leaders requires approval from the Labour Ministry’s inspection department, as leaders have some special protection.

“If they have fired union leaders like common workers, it violates the law on trade unions,” he said, explaining employers cannot fire union leaders unless they commit a serious mistake or cause violence in the workplace. “We have requested the company to stop discriminating against union leaders as they did before.”

Khun Tharo, a program coordinator of the labor rights group Central, echoed that sentiment, adding that the Labour Ministry has an obligation to resolve the conflict and urge both parties to negotiate. 

“The company is using the pretext of economic impacts as an opportunity for a mass layoff while workers are suffering in their livelihoods,” Tharo said.

Nop Tithboravy, 38, an employee of the food and beverage side of NagaWorld, hopes the government and company reconsider the layoff.

“The joint statement is one of solidarity and joining forces, so I hope we will stand up together to speak out for our rights and freedoms at the workplace,” she said.