Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

With Vague Details, Pro-government Unions Accuse Labor Groups of Inciting Members to Form New Union

Moeun Tola [right], executive director of CENTRAL, speaks during a press conference about the NagaWorld strike, August 29, 2022. CamboJA/ Uon Chhin
Moeun Tola [right], executive director of CENTRAL, speaks during a press conference about the NagaWorld strike, August 29, 2022. CamboJA/ Uon Chhin

Some 200 unions and federations have accused two prominent independent labor organizations of inciting its members to leave and establish a new union. The claim was denied by one of organizations, which said it has never trained members of any of the signatories — many of whom are affiliated with the government or ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Two separate letters were sent on Monday, November 28 to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) and the Center for Alliance and Human Rights (CENTRAL) accusing the labor groups of breaking solidarity among their union members. In the letter, the signatories claimed that during trainings hosted by CENTRAL and ACILS, union representatives were urged to leave their unions and create new ones, and were promised technical and financial support. 

“We are closely continuing to monitor the activity of CENTRAL, and if there is no stop to the ill-intention, we will take thorough measures by complaining to the relevant ministry and authority,” reads the petition, which goes on to say the defections weaken union power and impact employee protections. 

Soung Hout, president of the National Union Alliance Chambers Cambodia (NACC), which signed the petition, told CamboJA that the letter was intended to serve: “just as a warning for reconsideration,” he said.

He declined to provide evidence that the groups had encouraged defections, saying unions were still gathering proof to share with the public. 

“I’m not able to provide this yet. But for the documents and evidence, we have found it in hand while the team is still collecting more,”  Hout said.

Tep Kimvannary, president of signatory Cambodia Confederation of Trade Union, echoed Huot’s comments saying that the training courses organized by ACILS and CENTRAL regularly lead to a rupture among unionists.  

“I do not know how much [people were lobbied] I do not know. But most of the time, as they said, after [unionists] come back from the training, there is a problem of disunity.”

She said did not know how many people were lobbied to form a new union, or when such lobbying took place, adding that she only knew that there was a rift after they returned from training.

Moeun Tola, CENTRAL executive director, denied the accusation, saying they would never incite people to form their own union and had never even trained members of any of the 200 signatory groups. 

“We do not have a principle to split up any unions, so the accusation is entirely wrong,” he said.

“We do not work with unions who are under influence by the political party [CPP], so for that reason we have no projects and activity to work with those unions,” he said. 

He noted that the accusations had been made only by CPP-affiliated unions, and were doubtless politically motivated and intended to hamper the work of independent rights organizations. 

“The accusation that staffers at CENTRAL lobbied their members to create a new union, — I have found nothing true in it,” Tola said. 

“I have seen that it is intentionally a political tactic to threaten and persecute the organization and association that has worked to serve society and worker’s interest and human rights protection,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government mouthpiece Fresh News published an article on Thursday saying the tactics outlined in the signed union letter were the same as those used by Kem Sokha, who formed rights group CCHR, the Human Rights Party, and the merged opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party — which the article claims tried to foment a color revolution. 

The article also claimed CENTRAL was helping NagaWorld strikers receive funding from foreign sources.

Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sent NagaWorld unionist Chhim Sithar to pre-trial detention, saying she had violated the terms of her court-ordered supervision, a court official said.

Sithar, who heads the Labor Rights Supported Union, was arrested on Saturday at the Phnom Penh International Airport after returning from a labor conference in Australia.

Sithar was originally arrested in January and released on bail in March. She and seven other union leaders face charges of incitement related to the NagaWorld protests — which have been ongoing since mass layoffs in 2021. 

Leaders from independent unions said they believed the media reports and complaint letters were unwarranted. 

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said he believed that the accusations against CENTRAL were related to their advocacy on behalf of striking NagaWorld workers.

“First I think it is related to support in advocacy of NagaWorld employees, and second because CENTRAL has some activities related to union members,” he said.

“In my view, the organizations should carry out their work related to organization jobs, like providing legal assistance, but activities to collect and inform [union] members let unions do it instead,” Thorn said.

Yang Sophorn, the president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union, expressed that the actions that led to such a petition could not have happened without the go-ahead from someone in power. 

“And if they have the right evidence, as I mentioned earlier, if there is the right evidence, it must be clear which companies the two institutions incited,” she said. 

“They are not an independent union defending the rights of workers, they are a union that supports the interests of employers or the government, to put it bluntly. Even in the past, their work has never supported [workers],” she added.

Ou Tep Phallin, the president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said that those involved in defending workers’ rights are often subjected to such harassment.

“For us, we are not surprised. Because we are defending the rights of workers, we have to suffer from those who are unhappy, because we are going to snatch their interests, we are going to increase the power of the workers, the power of those who are already in power.” she said. 

Am Sam Ath, operations director of Licadho, urged unions and confederations to find a peaceful resolution and avoid taking any legal measures. 

“It is not the right way to confront others who work to serve the worker’s interest… The public will see no good image of alliance between people who have worked to serve society as unions, organization,” he said.

William Conklin, executive director at ACILS, could not be reached for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied both organizations had responded to claims made in the letter.