On the second day of trial for nine NagaWorld union members accused of incitement, the Phnom Penh municipal court prosecutor claimed union leader Chhim Sithar had been directing an illegal protest while Sithar maintained she was merely participating in a legal strike aligned with labor law.
Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang tried to frame the demonstrations as an individual dispute between Sithar and the company. He claimed her actions “held the company hostage” in an attempt to reinstate hundreds of laid off employees and receive other benefits. He argued Sithar was directing the union members to illegally protest and claimed they were no longer company employees and could not be considered legally striking.
“They [NagaWorld] come to open a business in our country and you [the union] completely try to force them [to accept your demands]” Heang said.
Wearing an orange prison uniform, Sithar responded to questions for nearly three hours and disputed the prosecutor’s characterizations. She said that all other legal avenues for resolving the labor dispute had been exhausted and that she was a participant in a strike collectively organized by the union.
“There was no solution in the proceedings of this labor dispute until the strike, and I do not accept the word hostage,” Sithar said. “I’m still a worker. Because the employees can use their legal options to settle their disputes, I reject [the prosecutor’s] allegations.”
Judge Soeung Chakrya cited evidence from the union’s zoom meetings and asked Sithar about the union’s funding, leadership and motives. In the first hearing last week, the court had interrogated Sithar about several international donors supporting the union.
Sithar denied that she was the leader of the strike and said that as president of the Labor Rights Support Union of Khmer Employees of Nagaworld she acted as a facilitator for collective decision-making by employees.
“I merely serve as the meeting’s moderator; I do not direct the strike,” she said. “No one offered the idea to lead the strike, but it is based on labor legislation.”
She said a majority of union members had voted to proceed with a strike in accordance with labor law. She also underscored the union’s commitment to nonviolence.
Defense lawyer Hong Sambath expressed disappointment in court that the prosecutor Seng Heang characterized the defendants’ actions as personal conflict and not part of a legal process in a labor dispute.
“I regret it [the prosecutor’s characterization] because it isn’t a conflict between people and people,” he said, adding the strikers’ should still be considered employees of the company because they had never agreed to the layoffs.
Ou Tep Phallin, head of the Cambodian Federation of Food and Service Workers’ Unions, told CamboJA that the NagaWorld union members were solely acting to resolve a labor dispute without actions intended to agitate or disturb society.
“Sithar tried to raise the issue of the labor law due to labor disputes between employers and workers, as well as union leaders,” said Phallin, referring to NagaWorld’s alleged targeting of union leadership during mass lay-offs. “There is no dispute that extends to incitement.”
Some NagaWorld union members present at the court said they considered themselves to still be employees because they had not accepted the resignation terms offered by the company. They also claimed the 2021 lay off of 1,329 workers — including all the union leadership and around 1,100 union members — was illegal because it disproportionately affected union members.
“We are still NagaWorld employees because the layoffs are obviously seen as discrimination [against union members],” Sreyroth said. “The company had fired…union members by using Covid-19 as a reason.”
Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour told CamboJA via Telegram that all procedures to resolve the labor dispute had been completed, including arbitration.
“The workers rejected the order of the arbitration council and both parties can continue the dispute to the court,” Sour claimed.
The arbitration council had declined to rule on the legality of the layoffs in 2021 and instead referred the matter back to the Ministry of Labor. The council did issue a non-binding ruling that the company had failed to provide workers with full severance pay and compensation benefits.
Sour said the Labor Ministry is open to mediating if both sides are willing to negotiate, but NagaWorld union members have said they do not believe the company or the Ministry is acting in good faith.
Am Sam Ath, operations director at human rights NGO Licadho, called on the court to drop the incitement charges against the nine defendants. He said efforts should instead be made to resolve the labor dispute rather than prosecuting union members.
“[We] have seen that the conflict was initiated from a labor dispute, it isn’t a criminal case,” he said. “The root cause of the problem is to put an end to the labor dispute and avoid accusing each other.”
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)