Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

“Release Wing Star Shoes Union Leader Chea Chan”, CATU Pleads With Kampong Speu Court

Members of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union gather in front of Kampong Speu court with banners urging the court to drop the charge against Chea Chan. (Supplied)
Members of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union gather in front of Kampong Speu court with banners urging the court to drop the charge against Chea Chan. (Supplied)

The Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) demands that Kampong Speu Provincial Court drop the criminal charge against Chea Chan, union president of Wing Star Shoes, and release him. CATU alleged that Chan’s arrest was related to the abuse of the judiciary to stifle his freedom of association.

Chan’s case was to be heard on April 29 but was postponed to an undetermined date in May. It was learnt that the prosecution witnesses did not appear in court.

However, Pheng Siphorn, spokesperson for Kampong Speu Provincial Court, told CamboJA that Chan’s lawyer asked for an adjournment, although the judge has yet to fix a new date in May.

Chan was charged with conspiracy to commit theft after he was unanimously voted by workers as the in-house union leader in Wing Star Shoes, but he was detained a few weeks later at work by Kampong Speu provincial police. The authorities allegedly failed to produce any summons or evidence to support the arrest.

Some 40 union members gathered with banners on Monday morning before the Kampong Speu Provincial Court to observe the trial. One banner read, “Chea Chan is not guilty as alleged by the company. Stop the arbitrary arrest and detention.” 

CATU president Yang Sophorn alleged that the criminal case against Chan may be a “pre-arrangement between the employer and authorities” to remove CATU’s local union from the factory.

She said before the lawsuit was filed by the company, she and Chan received threats on the phone from unidentified individuals, warning them “not to form a union in the factory.” 

Sophorn views these as intimidation and discrimination against CATU unions and a form of harassment, which is a serious violation of their labor rights under national and international laws.

“Workers have a right to form unions, but when workers exercise their right to organize, there is a steady stream of discrimination,” she said, adding that workers’ fundamental freedoms have been severely curtailed. “Our law is good, but the implementation runs contrary to our law.”

Sophorn also expressed regret over the postponement of the case. “I think the court has a right to continue the hearing as the postponement would cause the victims to suffer even more.” 

Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union members gather in front of Kampong Speu Court to monitor Chea Chan’s case and encourage him during his hearing on April 29, 2024. (Supplied)

It has been 55 days since Chea Chan was arrested and detained.

His wife, 35-year-old Chhe Chanra, insisted the court render justice by dropping the charge against her husband. “My husband did not commit a crime.” 

She was also worried about his health as he has a chronic illness and has grown thinner. “I asked the court to release him so he can reunite with us. My husband is not at fault [but] he was arrested and abused,” Chanra said.

She told CamboJA News that she has sold off the family car as they had no income, following Chan’s arrest. He was the sole breadwinner. The proceeds from the car sale have been used to pay off bank loans and cover daily expenses, especially those incurred from her regular visits to the prison.

“There is a lot of expenditure in the prison as the goods are more expensive there than it is outside,” she said. “My husband spends 100,000 riel (approximately $25) a week. If he pays for food, it costs 250,000 riel (approximately $62) a month, and I spend 70,000 riel each time I visit him.”

CATU member Met Samphors, 40, said he came to court to support Chan and monitor his trial, stressing that the case was a violation of labor rights, and that the factory has been discriminatory against independent unions.

Samphors asked the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training to take action against factories that violate the basic rights of unions.

“We have a law that allows [the setting up of ] unions in accordance with the constitution, but the company has an excuse [to stop this] and the ministry and [labor] department do not care about this,” he said. “So, I ask the ministry to pay attention to this. If it continues, workers will lose their rights.” 

Ministry spokesperson Katta Orn asserted that Chan’s case was “a criminal case”, and that it was “beyond the police authority”. “It’s not under the ministry’s authority but in case the union needs a lawyer, the ministry can help,” Orn said.