Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Phnom Penh Court conducts days-long interrogation of three NagaWorld workers for violating COVID-19 Law

Seng Sovanrith, one of three workers arrested for alleged violations of the COVID-19 Law, speaks during a strike on February 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Seng Sovanrith, one of three workers arrested for alleged violations of the COVID-19 Law, speaks during a strike on February 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

As three NagaWold workers undergo a days-long interrogation at Phnom Penh Municipal Court over alleged violations of COVD-19 public health measures, a union association has called out the government for using legal intimidation to stop a peaceful strike.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sokseiha confirmed officers arrested three people Saturday for allegedly violating measures of the Health Ministry. These three are Chuob Channath, Seng Sovanarith and Sao Sambath, who have been accused of obstructing implementation of measures of the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases – more commonly known as the COVID-19 Law.

“We arrested [them] to follow a court warrant that they have been an obstacle to the implementation of the Health Ministry measures,” Sokseiha said of the trio. “They are now being questioned at the court.”

The three have been detained for four days at Phnom Penh police headquarters but the court has not finished their questioning, leading to a notably long interrogation period. Civil society groups monitoring the case closely confirmed the trio of workers will be sent back to the court Wednesday morning.

“Our police officials are searching for four more workers to follow the court warrant,” Sokeiha said, declining further comment.

Following a layoff of more than 1,300 workers, NagaWorld employees have been striking since late November. Among their demands is the reinstatement of 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 a 7% raise on the current base salary to meet the inflation of market price. Among other issues, the strikers’ nine key demands also include a call for NagaWorld to stop exploiting workers under the premise of internships.

After one of the members of the striking Labour Rights Supported Union (LRSU) tested positive for COVID-19 during a routine pregnancy checkup, public officials demanded on Saturday the rest of the striker group test for COVID-19 and self-isolate even upon receiving a negative result.

Four workers summoned to appear for questioning before February 19 posted video clips on the LRSU Facebook page in response to the announcement that police were looking for them, saying that they aren’t fleeing and will appear before the court after ending a quarantine period.

“I was already tested, I am quarantined, and I will appear to verify with the commissioner, so no need to spend state budget to arrest me,” said striker Keng Chenda in a post. “I have not fled to anywhere.”

NagaWorld workers request health officials delay their COVID-19 test to the next day after a fellow striker tested positve for the more-infectious Omicron variant. Photo taken February 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
NagaWorld workers request health officials delay their COVID-19 test to the next day after a fellow striker tested positve for the more-infectious Omicron variant. Photo taken February 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

NagaWorld employee Ouk Sopheakmolika, 33, who avoided the casino company’s mass layoff, expressed disappointment that the court issued a warrant for her over violating the Health Ministry measure.

She said about 900 workers have tested for COVID-19, since Saturday. So far, 41 people have tested positive for the virus.

“I was tested on Saturday, and the result is negative. I am now quarantined at home,” Sopheakmolika said.

She said the strikers have taken their action online in response to the COVID-19 developments and denied violating infectious disease measures.

“I wasn’t an obstacle because I went for testing,” she said, adding that the workers’ cooperation in testing was in compliance with Health Ministry procedures. “The continuing arrests by authorities are intended to intimidate strikers for assembling to protest against the NagaWorld company.”

“Our strikers still keep going to demand a resolution, and [these arrests] do not make strikers afraid but adds more pain that we have already suffered, making for a double injustice,” she continued.

The COVID-19 law passed in early March in spite of criticism from rights groups who warned it could be abused to interfere with public assembly.

Under the stipulations of the law, health officials or authorities can warn or educate anyone who does not wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines. Fines range from 200,000-1 million riel, or about $50-250. An organizer of gatherings that violate these rules can be fined between 1-5 million riel, or as much as $1,250.

Ou Tephallin, president of Cambodian Food Service Workers’ Federation, said the official response to the strikes has been a failure to uphold democratic principles and guarantee freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the constitution. 

“They don’t allow employees to have power because when workers have power, understanding their rights, they [authorities] will lose interest,” Tephallin said.

She said that authorities have a tactic to break the workers’ spirit to stop protesting and demanding a peaceful resolution to their grievances.

“We have seen that workers didn’t obstruct the Health Ministry measure,” she said. “How did workers become obstacles? Because right now there are about 1,000 workers who tested [for COVID-19].”

On Tuesday, the rights group Licadho updated a list of 66 documented prisoners of conscience currently imprisoned in Cambodia for peaceful involvement in social issues, politics or journalism. The list included eight arrested LRSU leaders imprisoned during the strike.

Licadho deputy director Am Sam Ath told CamboJA the COVID-19 complications have only added to the burdens of the strikers.

“They should not be arrested from the beginning because it is entirely a labor dispute that authorities have prolonged not to resolve the problem,” he said.

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