Police arrested at least 15 NagaWorld workers on Monday during a peaceful strike while six other union members detained on New Year’s Eve are now being questioned for criminal charges of incitement.
Once again, a joint force of hundreds of police, including riot teams, were deployed Monday to prevent about 500 workers from striking outside the downtown casino-hotel complex. The strikers were corralled in front of the Australian embassy, within sight of the Naga 2 buildings, where they demanded the release of their fellow union members who were detained by police.
Police officials and city authorities have branded the strike as an illegal action that threatens order and security.
Phnom Penh Municipal police chief Sar Thet confirmed on Monday morning that police have warrants to arrest three to four more people accused of incitement regarding an illegal strike caused to disturb public order. Thet didn’t say specifically who the warrants were for, but seemed to suggest at least one was for NagaWorld’s union president, Chhim Sithar.
“She [Chhim Sithar] already had [an arrest warrant], and we will arrest when we see them,” he said.
Thet said six people were sent to the court on Sunday night over accusations of incitement. Civil society groups have reported that police had arrested 10 people associated with the strike on New Year’s Eve, but in a call with a CamboJA reporter Thet only confirmed nine arrests that night. The police chief said the three other detained people not sent to court were released with warnings on Sunday after they were found to be uninvolved with the alleged offenses.
The police chief warned that if workers continue striking, they will face legal action.
“If they go, they will face [arresting] because we have already instructed them,” Thet said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday issued a statement that the incitement charges involved article 494 and 495 of criminal code and were leveled against nine NagaWorld union members, including its president Chhim Sithar.
The statement says the accused – Sithar, Ry Sovandy, Son Sreypich, Hai Sopheap, Klaing Soben, Touch Sereimeas, Chhim Sokhorn, Sok Narith and Sok Kong Kea – plus some unnamed strikers “were involved to incite former NagaWorld workers who had been laid-off to cause turmoil to public order and disturb social security.”
Sithar, Narith and Kong Kea have not yet been arrested.
Court spokesman Y Rin confirmed Monday at 6 p.m. that the investigating judge is questioning the six detained union members.
Chhim Sithar, 32, the president of the casino company’s Labor Rights Supported Union, told CamboJA on Sunday that she is in hiding after learning that police officials have been searching for her.
“They are looking for me at the union office,” she said. “They have chased me since the first day of striking but I was at a safe place.”
Workers went on strike December 19 to dispute the casino company’s mass layoff of 1,329 people. The strikers have demanded the company reinstate 373 workers who have resisted their severance. NagaWorld holds the monopoly on casino licensing for Phnom Penh and last year raked in $869 million in gross gaming revenues, despite the pandemic. In 2019, the casino-resort pulled in gaming revenues of $1.7 billion.
The union has submitted a set of nine demands, with the most important urging the reinstatement of the 365 holdouts and proper severance pay for those who were laid off. The unionists are also demanding the company provide seniority bonuses and remuneration in accordance with the law for this year and last, as well as an additional 7% of the current base wage to all workers to meet the inflation of market prices. Among other issues, the nine demands also include a call for NagaWorld to stop exploiting workers under the premise of internships.
Sambo Leakkena, a dealer at the casino who attended Monday’s strike said she came to express her sadness with the situation and to demand justice.
“Before this, I had seen how [protestors] had cried and turned to protests. I pitied them [then], but now it’s my turn and I know how painful it is – and now I myself understand,” she told CamboJA as she held a sign stating “Labor is not a commodity.”
“I came to demand a resolution with NagaWorld. I’m not coming to an argument with authorities, and they have mistreated all of us,” Leakkena said. She cited that joint forces set up barricades to prevent them from protesting.
According to rights groups monitoring the strike, on Monday afternoon at about 2 p.m. police arrested 15 workers, including one pregnant woman, who were detained near NagaWorld II. Phnom Penh Municipal police spokesman San Sok Seiha did not confirm the new group of arrests, though a two-minute video clip from one of the 14 arrested workers inside a police vehicle circulated Monday on Facebook. In the clip, the woman filming the scene identifies the group as strikers and professes their innocence.
“What have we done wrong? [We] include a pregnant woman who was also arrested, this is injustice,” the woman said.
A CamboJA reporter at the strike also witnessed police catch at least one worker and put them into a police truck.
The reporter heard an order come through to the walkie-talkies of nearby security guards stating: “If one person shows up, [we] arrest one.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the rights group Licadho, said he was concerned that authorities are repressing workers who are exercising their right to argue against the mass layoff by NagaWorld casino.
“I think that [the arrests] violated their rights because of the laws on Labour and Peaceful Demonstration, which has allowed them to hold peaceful strikes to demand a resolution,” he said.
He said that hundreds of police operating as a joint force to prevent peaceful strikes will hurt workers’ rights while inviting human rights criticism from national and international communities.
“When their strikes lead to accusations by authorities or [if] they consider their strike illegal, it can’t resolve labor conflict,” Sam Ath said.
He called on the relevant authorities, especially the Ministry of Labor, to mitigate the situation. Sam Ath also said strikers should return to negotiation to resolve the conflict, rather than press ahead with a strike that could result in more arrests.