Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Wing Star Shoes Union Leader Charged with Conspiracy To Commit Theft After Winning Post 

Chea Chan (left) drops his ballot paper into the box during the polls where he was later elected as a union leader at Wing Star Shoes factory on January 10, 2024. (Supplied)
Chea Chan (left) drops his ballot paper into the box during the polls where he was later elected as a union leader at Wing Star Shoes factory on January 10, 2024. (Supplied)

Chea Chan, union leader at the Wing Star Shoes factory, who was just elected into that post, was caught and charged with “conspiracy to commit theft” for an incident that allegedly happened two years ago.

He is said not to be involved in the case. Activists assert that his detention is meant to “pressure” union members to disband the independent union in the factory. 

Prior to Chan’s arrest, an election for union board members was held in the factory where he and nine others were voted in, according to a statement by the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union (CATU).

After Chan informed Wing Star Shoes about forming a union, the company sent warnings to him and the other union leaders, persuading them to cancel the union, but they refused to comply.

On February 14, Chan was detained at work by a group of Kampong Speu provincial police who allegedly failed to produce a summons or any proof to support the arrest.

Yang Sophorn, president of CATU, said the arrest of the union leader was a serious violation of the union rights, along with the absence of evidence or a summons.

“The company conspired with the police and called Chan to the stockroom saying someone wanted to meet him before five policemen caught him. They arrested him without a summons,” said Sophorn.

She said the factory allegedly sued him for conspiring to steal but the charge was allegedly “concocted with the police” as Chan and the others do not know anything about the two-year-old theft at the factory.

The company was not keen on an independent union, hence the reason they discouraged workers from starting one, she added.

“Yesterday, the court charged Chan for conspiring to steal, [an incident] which happened two years ago, not involving Chan. This is the real reason why the company wants to discourage my union leader,” said Sophorn.

In fact, two representatives from Wing Star Shoes met CATU to discuss the union issue as they failed to convince Chan to abort its setting up. “They gave us money to change his mind. When we refused to accept their request, they detained my union leader instead.”

Chan’s wife, Chhay Chanra, 35, told CamboJA that arresting and charging her husband was unfair because her husband did not commit any crime.

“They arrested my husband without a summons, which is a violation of workers’ and union rights. He worked there for almost 10 years. Why did they do that,” she asked.

She is also concerned about her family as they have three children and Chan is the sole breadwinner.

“This is unacceptable. I want the company to withdraw the lawsuit and the court to release him as soon as possible,” said Chanra.

Pheng Siphoan, Chief of Administrative Secretariat and Spokesman of Kampong Speu Provincial Court, said Chan has been sent to Kampong Speu provincial prison after being charged under Articles 29, 353 and 356 of the Penal Code.

According to Article 356 of the Penal Code, theft is punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine of one million to six million riels.

“The court questioned him on February 17 and sent him to prison yesterday [Sunday],” he told CamboJA. 

When asked why the court only questioned Chan two years after the alleged theft, Siphoan replied, “this is the court procedure”.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training 2023 annual report stressed that factories should respect the Labor Law and resolve labor conflicts where more than 8,000 cases have been recorded. 

Chek Borin, director of the Kampong Speu ​provincial Department of Labor, said if Chan’s case is related to the violation of worker’s rights, his department will intervene. However, the company sued Chan under the criminal law, so he is not able to get involved. 

“Had he [Chan] informed us regarding a labor case, we would have intervened but this is related to a criminal case,” said Borin. 

The ministry report also noted that the government is open and encourages the right to organization and unions which is in accordance with the Labor Law and international labor standards.

In 2022, a report by Human Rights Watch mentioned that Cambodia does not have a designated labor court despite the Cambodian labor law stipulating the need for one. Owing to that, the Arbitration Council is the only body tasked to handle alternative dispute resolution for labor-related issues.

Meanwhile, CATU’s Sophorn raised concerns about union rights being trampled on a daily basis. “I can say the condition of union rights now is quite bad, even though we have special protection under the labor law but in reality it is the opposite. Our employees don’t even have the right to negotiate [with factory owners],” she lamented.

CamboJA reached out to Wing Star Shoes for comment via telephone, using a number provided on the company website but the person who picked up said he no longer works with the company.