Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Render Justice on Wing Star Union’s Chief, CATU Urges Kampong Speu Court

Yang Sophorn, president of CATU, and her members gather outside Kampong Speu provincial court on May 29, 2024. (CATU)
Yang Sophorn, president of CATU, and her members gather outside Kampong Speu provincial court on May 29, 2024. (CATU)

About 40 trade union representatives and members of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions (CATU) gathered at Chea Chan’s trial at the Kampong Speu Provincial Court, with banners on Wednesday, demanding his release. The court will deliver its verdict on June 20, 2024.

Chan, the union leader of Wing Star Shoes Co Ltd, was arrested in February 2024 and charged with “conspiracy to commit theft”, an incident that allegedly happened two years ago. To date, he has been arrested and detained for 85 days.

Met Somphors, 40, told CamboJA News that the allegations against Chan showed that his employer was using the justice system to intimidate the union and did not want an independent union established. He alleged that the company was violating union rights.

“When Chea Chan established the union to protect workers’ rights, the company made [up] an excuse to charge him without any evidence. This is a [form of] threat through the court system,” said Somphors. 

He urged the court to drop the charge against Chan while calling on the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training to take action against any foreign company that violates union or workers’ rights.

Somphors found that some unions which aligned with the company do not face any issues but any independent union which “dared to protect the workers rights, will more or less face challenges or legal action”.

He said independent unions fighting for workers’ benefits or rights are balanced. “If we see something wrong, we will say it is wrong. If we see something right, we will say it is right. That’s why they don’t want us in the company,” Somphors said. 

Based on her observation of the court hearing, Yang Sophorn, president of CATU, said Chan was innocent because “no perpetrator was arrested” when the alleged theft happened in 2022 and the company did not take action immediately at the time. 

Sophorn added that Or Somol, a witness from Wing Star Shoes, did not offer a clear response as to who committed the theft. Somol, a garment worker in the factory, had used the word “maybe” when asked in court, which is not reasonable, Sophorn said, noting that “one cannot assume” that it was Chan.

“Chea Chan was unjustly detained in prison for almost three months. It is unfair for him. Chan was arrested without a court warrant and this is because the company was not happy when an independent union was established there,” Sophorn alleged.

She urged the court to free Chan of the charge because he is innocent and the charge by the company was only “concocted to intimidate the union”. She added that Wing Star Shoes buyers should put pressure on the company to release Chan as soon as possible.

“Releasing Chan is really important because Cambodia’s constitution, labor law and international convention supported the right to create a union at the workplace. So, if the court renders [him] justice, it means that the court is fair. The public will also believe in the court system,” said Sophorn.

Pheng Siphorn, spokesperson for Kampong Speu Provincial Court, did not respond to phone calls and messages via Telegram.

A prison vehicle transports Chea Chan and other prisoners to Kampong Speu provincial court on May 29, 2024. (CATU)

Chan’s wife, 35-year-old Chhe Chanra, hoped that the court would decide justly and release her husband as he is innocent. 

During the trial, the witness, Somol, stated that Chan was not involved in a conspiracy to commit theft.

After her husband was detained in prison, she faced financial difficulties having to spend around $900 per month to pay off bank loans, three of their children’s school fees and living expenses.

“I hope the court will let my husband go because he didn’t conspire to commit theft. His health is also not good as he has diabetes and has difficulty breathing,” said Chanra.

Labor and Vocational Training Ministry spokesperson Katta Orn said Chan was facing “a criminal case” and 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.

“Wing Star Shoes is based out of Cambodia with 138 import shipments and 618 export shipments,” according to Trademo Intel, a global supply chain data intelligence platform. It said the company’s top sourcing countries are the United States, Canada and Philippines, and top export market is Vietnam. 

On May 9, 2024, ASICS Sustainability Department responded in a letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center that Chan’s arrest was a result of a complaint by Wing Star Shoes. The Japanese sportswear company said it “acknowledged the gravity of Chan’s situation” and was “committed to upholding labor rights and fair labor practices within the ASICS supply chain”.

“We have requested Wing Star Shoes to cease all forms of interference and retaliation against union activities and to respect the right of workers to organize,” the statement said. “However, we are monitoring the development of this case closely.”

Additionally, ASICS expressed their concern for Chan’s health and wellbeing. They have been in discussions with Wing Star Shoes and requested ways to ensure his safety and well-being.

With regards to Chan’s next course of action, ASICS said, given its influence on Wing Star Shoes, the latter has agreed to put Chea Chan on a “temporary leave status”.

ASICS mentioned that the company has agreed to “adhere to the requests of the labor department” and handle the situation in accordance with the law.

“If Chan is found innocent, Wing Star Shoes will commit to comply with the labor department’s requests and provide compensation and reinstate his position,” ASICS said.