Posted on: November 28, 2022, 07:52h. 

Last updated on: November 28, 2022, 11:34h.

A year after it began, a strike by workers at Cambodia’s NagaWorld casino continues. As delicate as situations like this usually are, it doesn’t help when the Cambodian government gets involved and arrests one of the organizers once again.

Chhim Sithar
Chhim Sithar (left center, in black shirt) talks with a Cambodian official at Wat Botum park this summer. The union leader and former NagaWorld employee was arrested last week. (Image: VOD)

After returning from Australia, where she attended a 12-day trade union conference, Cambodian police took union leader Chhim Sithar into custody. Licadho, a human rights group, said she was arrested at the Phnom Penh International Airport on November 26.

The police then took Sithar to a correctional facility, where she is still being held. The government claims she violated bail conditions earlier this year, although many strike supporters believe it’s another attempt by the government to suppress the union and free speech.

Human Rights Violations at NagaWorld

Licadho stated that neither Sithar nor her attorneys knew about any judicial supervision, probation conditions, or travel restrictions when she walked free on bail in January. Sithar is the president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld. The group seeks to improve severance pay as well as to have 365 union leaders and members reinstated following their layoff in April of last year.

A number of embassies, labor groups, and even the United Nations have been monitoring the dispute and the questionable tactics used by the authorities. However, efforts to get Prime Minister Hun Sen to step in and help find a peaceful solution have failed.

The Ministry of Labor claims some success in negotiations with striking workers. Instead of working with them collectively, though, it is pulling them aside one by one to make deals.

The ministry also stated last week that five other employees accepted a settlement and have resolved their battle with NagaWorld, a NagaCorp-owned property. The terms of those settlements aren’t public, other than that they involve “seniority payments” to walk away from the casino operator.

Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on the ongoing saga. In it, the organization quoted Sithar, and some believe her arrest was made in retaliation for her remarks.

HRW claimed that Cambodia, possibly under Hun Sen’s guidance, suppresses labor movements. It also tries to stop any political opposition and civil society activism.

Heng Sour, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, denies the allegations. He told the Phnom Penh Post that the HRW report contained inaccuracies and was “unprofessional.”

Fighting for More than Compensation

Initially, the strike was an attempt to get NagaWorld to put back on its payroll former workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. From all media accounts, the strike was initially peaceful, with no confrontations.

This didn’t stop the government from charging strike organizers with “disturbing the peace” and causing a “threat to public security.” Now, the battle is also over civil and human rights in the country as much as it is about workers’ rights.

Police initially arrested Sithar, a former NagaWorld casino supervisor, on January 4 as she arrived at Cambodia’s biggest legal casino. The government saw her as a direct threat to its power.

Sithar isn’t the only union leader to fall into the government’s crosshairs. In 2004, Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) President Chea Vichea was publicly executed by unknown assailants. Four months later, his replacement, Ros Sovannarith, met the same fate.

In both of those cases, the highest levels of the government were implicated but never charged for lack of evidence.