Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Labor rights group sees bad faith in recognition of new NagaWorld union amidst labor dispute

NagaWorld union employees shout for help as authorities force them into a city bus. Police and other officials detained the unionists as they tried to resume their strike in front of the NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, March 16, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
NagaWorld union employees shout for help as authorities force them into a city bus. Police and other officials detained the unionists as they tried to resume their strike in front of the NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, March 16, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

While the Labor Ministry has recognized a new trade union at NagaWorld, rights groups warn the little-known organization could obstruct negotiations to end the beleaguered casino company’s ongoing labor dispute.

On March 14, the Ministry recognized the registration of a new union purportedly representing NagaWorld workers.

The recognition came March 14,  the same day as the release on bail of eight NagaWorld union leaders who had been kept for months in pretrial detention. That group included Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU), which is the original collective bargaining unit that has held the ongoing strike.

Sithar and other LRSU members believe the new union was quickly approved in order to undercut their own group’s influence.

LRSU member Mam Sovathin, whose work contract with NagaWorld has been terminated, said the new union was established by the company and will not serve the interests of workers.

“Everything [is] set by the company. We cannot accept the new union leader as they all were silently selected by the company and all the NagaWorld staff did not hear about this,” she said. It is not over yet, why have they created a new union while the dispute remains unsolved.”

Sovathin pledged to remain on strike to maintain the union’s original demands, which center on reinstating holdouts of NagaWorld’s mass layoff last year of more than 1,300 staff, including Sithar and other union leaders. The strikers also now demand the authorities drop all charges filed against workers and union leaders as a result of their protest.

“Workers’ representatives are just the ones who negotiate, they have no right to stop our strike. We will continue striking even during the negotiation until the joint resolution is found,” she said.

Fellow LRSU member Mech Sreyoun echoed Sovathin, saying that the new union’s formation violated labor law.

“I am like other strikers; besides our union leader, Sithar, we will not acknowledge anyone else,” she said.

Sreyoun said she thought the ministry’s recognition of the newly registered union was “hilarious”. She also said the new group was a company creation and would not represent staff interests.

“When a union is created by a company, the union will take the side of the company. It will not be an independent representative that takes care of workers,” she said.

Sun Sreypich, one of the  eight union members who was released on bail, was invited to negotiate with the ministry on March 16. But Sreypich said she did not attend the meeting due to time constraints.

“We could not attend because it was too quick for us as we were not well-prepared, while the other three union members remain in jail,” she said. “We ask authorities to drop charges against us and release other members first, then we will come back for talks.”

NagaWorld employees strike in front of the company's hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, March 16, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
NagaWorld employees strike in front of the company’s hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, March 16, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Khun Tharo, program manager of the rights group Central, wants to see the court drop charges against all union members. He said their release on bail is just a tactic to pressure the strikers for reconciliation or negotiation.

“There is no legal basis for any charges against them and the bail is still put [them] in pressure,” he said. 

Tharo said the newly established union would downsize the voice of independent unions.

“It is also strange that the Ministry of Labor acknowledges the new union while all the eight union representatives are released on bail,” he said.

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment.

In a Tuesday meeting with the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said he has been pushing for talks to resolve NagaWorld’s labor dispute. He met last week with police and government officials to discuss the conflict, and said the release on bail of union leaders was also part of his push to seek further negotiations under the coordination of the Labor Ministry.

Last week’s meeting included representatives from the ministries of labor, justice, health, as well as the offices of the Phnom Penh governor, National Police commissioner and Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

At the same time, the government has defended measures taken by authorities and the company in resolving the dispute.

In its first statement since the strike erupted last December, the government praised the Labor Ministry for working “tirelessly” to solve the issue.

The statement also said NagaWorld had been forced to reduce 25 percent of its employees due to the significant impact of the COVID-19 on Cambodia’s tourism sector.

The Labor Ministry said during December, it had already negotiated seven times with workers to address the dispute. The statement said among 374 employees who demand to be reinstated, 150 agreed to accept a one-off payment in return for their employment contract to be terminated as of March 15.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at rights group Licadho, warned the recognition of a newly registered union would harm negotiations of the ongoing dispute.

“Establishing a trade union is the right of employees, companies, or enterprises, but in the middle of a dispute, the new union is not suitable, and I understand that this would make the situation more tense,” he said.

Sam Ath said that, as the LRSU’s term has not yet finished based on labor law, forming a new one is the company’s intention to discriminate against it.

“The issue has been prolonged for nearly three months, and nothing has improved in finding a solution,” he said. “The recognition by the ministry, who is responsible for facilitating a resolution, will cause an obstacle to address the issue.”

The NagaWorld workers continued their strike on Wednesday. Citing COVID-19 measures, authorities again detained dozens of strikers and sent them to quarantine at a center on the outskirts of the city.

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