NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar and eight co-defendants appeared for their first day of trial in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday. Sithar and all her colleagues, except for one, denied the incitement charges against them.
Prosecutors claim that Sithar and her fellow union members are guilty of incitement to disturb security for leading a union strike for more than a year after Phnom Penh authorities declared the labor movement illegal.
Over the course of the three and a half hour hearing, Presiding judge Soeung Chakriya focused on questioning Sithar about the union’s funding, especially from international donors.
Sithar acknowledged she had requested and received funds to support the union’s activities from three international donors: U.S.-based non-profit East West Management Institute (EWMI), feminist NGO JASS and North American union Unite Here.
The three organizations could not be reached for comment.
Sithar said the union received $10,000 from EWMI, $15,000 from JASS and $5,000 from Unite Here as “humanitarian funds” to aid members laid off during Covid-19.
“I made proposals for receiving funds to support the union’s operations and humanitarian funds in helping members during COVID-19, and layoff jobs,” Sithar said.
Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang said that Sithar had led the illegal protest without permission from Phnom Penh municipal authorities and that international funds support the union’s illegal activities.
“I have observed they [workers] have protested [from] morning till evening with no other job [to support their livelihood],” he said.
“They’re volunteers who come [to strike] and they’re willing to do so,” Sithar replied.
She said the strike was peaceful, legal and protected by the Cambodian constitution’s right to freedom expression.
Approximately 1,300 workers initiated the strike on December 18, 2021 to demand the reinstatement of 365 laid off NagaWorld employees following mass lay-offs and lack of full severance pay. More than one year later, 100 employees still protest their lay-offs.
Sithar, president of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employee of NagaWorld (LRSU), has stated the union has followed all legal protocol for the strike. The union has said it only launched a strike after all viable efforts at mediation were exhausted.
But Sithar and her eight fellow union members — Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Ry Sovandy, Sok Kongkea, Sok Narith, Sun Sreypich, and Touch Sereymeas — were arrested in January last year and placed in pre-trial detention. They were released from Prey Sar prison on bail in March.
Sithar was re-arrested in November last year and detained for allegedly violating bail.
Only one defendant, Kongkea, accepted the charges of incitement in court but later declined to speak with reporters.
Senior Adhoc investigator Yi Soksan said the government, Ministry of Labor and NagaWorld had unfairly dismissed efforts to resolve the strikers demands by instead handing the issue to the system.
“I see that the Royal Government as well as the Ministry of Labor does not seem to care about this labor dispute, they are [Nagaworld staff] laid off unfairly by the company and then the court charges with accusing them of inciting unrest and undermining social security.”
Ministry of Labor spokesperson Heng Sour said in a Telegram message to CamboJA that labor conflicts between former employees of NagaWorld have been settled at the court stage.
“However, he ministry will continue to mediate through the mechanism of the strike and demonstration commission at the request of the conflicting parties,” he said.
NagaWorld could not be reached for comment.
President of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions Yang Sophorn attended the trial and said she believed LRSU members had legitimate reasons and legal cause to strike but this was ignored by the court.
“Prosecutor questioned tried to place blame, it isn’t about finding justice for Sithar only protecting the interests of the company,” Sophorn told CamboJA News. “[The court] does not mean to find justice for parties involved.”
“I think that the incitement charge was exaggerated because Sithar has tried to explain the root cause of striking and workers’ demands that they have a right to disagree with the employer,” Sophorn added.
Laid off NagaWorld union member Nop Tithboravy and around 100 fellow union members protested outside the court on the day of the hearing.
Tithboravy said she and her colleagues had received numerous threats from the government and struggled to support their families financially after more than one year of striking, refusing to accept the company’s terms.
“I hope the court will bring justice to everyone because we are doing a strike to seek freedom at our workplace and want to go back to work,” she said. “ We don’t have income to support our family, we want to go back to work.”
Tithboravy said the strikers would not end their strike unless the company reinstated all workers and the court dropped all charges against the union members.
The trial is scheduled to resume on February 28.
Outside the court following the hearing, Sithar’s younger brother Chhim Pros said his sister had only followed the law in leading the strike.
“[Sithar] has always helped people from a young age,” he said. “She is just an ordinary girl, she has no ability to destroy the peace in our country.”