This story has been updated since its original publication.
Phnom Penh municipal court sentenced NagaWorld union president Chhim Sithar to two years in prison after convicting her of incitement and social unrest on Thursday for leading a strike which has been ongoing since December 18, 2021.
“I think the accusations lacked basic evidence,” Sithar told CamboJA the morning of her verdict. “It’s just, there is not any evidence. They just brought up my personal conversation. It does not relate to our work.”
Five of Sithar’s union colleagues — Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Sun Sreypich, Touch Sereymas — were convicted and sentenced to one year and six months. They are now under court supervision, pending a final verdict from the Supreme Court.
Three other union members — Sok Kong Kea, Sok Narith, and Ry Sovandy — were given one year suspended sentences. Sovandy is pregnant.
“It is injustice,” Sreypich told CamboJA after the verdict. “For the victims of a labor dispute to become suspects and then convicted by the court. I very much regret the court’s decision.”
The court did not mandate any fines.
Sithar had repeatedly insisted throughout her trial, which began in February, that the union exhausted all options before initiating a legal strike. She and her eight colleagues were arrested in January last year and placed in pre-trial detention and released on bail in March.
Sithar was re-arrested in November and detained for allegedly violating the terms of her bail. Sithar has been held for eight months prior to her sentencing, which will count as time served.
Sithar said that NagaWorld’s management had failed to resolve the labor dispute in good faith, forcing the union to take to the streets in compliance with labor law to demand the reinstatement of 365 laid-off employees and union leaders, along with receiving full severance pay benefits.
The prosecution countered that the union’s strikers had never received permission from Phnom Penh authorities, who labeled the strike an illicit protest.
Article 324 of Cambodia’s labor law says that before a strike occurs, employers and the Labor Ministry must receive “prior notice of at least seven working days” and that workers “precisely specify the demands which constitute the reasons for the strike. Likewise, Article 7 of the demonstration law stipulates five days of prior notice before a strike.
No law states that permission must be granted from authorities for a strike to occur, according to the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights program manager Khun Tharo.
Cambodia’s arbitration council issued a non-binding resolution requesting that the company recalculate severance pay but had declined to issue a ruling on NagaWorld’s mass lay-offs removing union leadership from the workforce.
In his closing arguments on May 3, defense lawyer Hong Sambath argued that the lack of resolution from the arbitration council, the company and Labor Ministry’s was the cause of the strike.
In contrast, the prosecution portrayed the NagaWorld union leader and her colleagues as conspirators to commit violent criminal activity, playing as evidence around 30 minutes of selected audio recordings from around 50 Zoom meetings comprising three hours of footage.
The judge had rejected a request from Sithar’s lawyer to play all the Zoom recordings in full.
The audio recordings which were played in court included a clip in which Sithar said “we will destroy the rice pot” which the prosecutor argued meant destroying NagaWorld — “rice pot” can mean source of financial revenue in Khmer.
Sithar responded that the prosecutor had twisted her words and she was referring to a previous labor dispute in which a previous NagaWorld union leader had appeared to abandon workers in an earlier labor dispute with the company.
Prosecutors had also raised the issue of international funds being sent to individual bank accounts of union leaders rather than an organizational account for the union.
Sithar’s lawyers said there was nothing illegal about accepting funding from international groups — in the union’s case, a feminist NGO, an American labor rights group and the U.S.-based non-profit East West Management Institute. The funds were a form of humanitarian assistance during Covid-19 lockdowns, Sithar’s lawyers had argued.
The prosecution had stated that Sithar and her colleagues “had ill intentions to disturb turmoil in society.”
The NagaWorld union members — who say they are committed to non-violent striking — have faced violence from authorities and allegedly from NagCorp CEO’s adult son, a company executive who was recorded on video grabbing and hurling a striker’s phone to the payment, then throwing a traffic cone at strikers. The strikers were also allegedly targeted when a grenade was found near their strike site last December.
Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to phone calls and could not be reached for comment.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, called the outcome of the trial “pre-determined” and “politically motivated.”
“Chhim Sithar and her fellow labor leaders should have been able to negotiate a settlement about the lay-offs,” he said. “But in Cambodia exercising their labor rights is viewed as a national security threat.”