After 17 days on strike

Cambodia: NagaWorld casino workers arrested during a strike over COVID-related layoffs

Workers protesting in front of Nagacorp’s hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Reading time 2:28 min

On Monday, Cambodian police arrested 15 workers and union members protesting against layoffs at the country’s biggest casino run by Hong-Kong listed NagaCorp. Some of them now face legal action.

Since Dec. 18, 2021, thousands of workers have been on strike in front of Nagacorp Ltd’s hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, NagaWorld, because the company terminated more than 1,300 employees last year as several COVID-related disruptions hit revenue. They demand the reinstatement of 365 employees who were let go in April.

The strike has been declared illegal by authorities. A judge ruled the union had not correctly followed arbitration procedures. Municipal officials also said the strike violated COVID-19 restrictions and rules on demonstrations. Meanwhile, the company also claims the strike to be illegal stating that it was implementing a “mutual separation plan” as part of efforts to improve cost efficiency during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union and rights groups have accused authorities of siding with one of Cambodia's most powerful companies rather than protecting the rights of workers, and the chief of the workers’ union, Chhim Sithar, said workers had not been compensated properly.

“Information we received from our members is that 15 people, including a pregnant woman, have been arrested,” Sithar told Reuters. “Up to this hour, none of the workers’ demand has been solved but instead authorities have arrested unionists, activists, and strikers,” she said.

Monday’s action follows the detention of nine people on New Year’s Day. Those nine have been charged with “incitement to cause serious chaos to social security,” a court document showed.

Protesters were pulled into a police truck and taken away on Monday. Phnom Penh police spokesman San Sok Seyha couldn’t be reached for a comment immediately.

Naly Pilorge, director of Cambodian rights group LICADHO, criticized the state's response.

"The government has the responsibility to protect striking workers' rights and freedoms, and to ensure private companies such as NagaWorld properly follow the Labor Law," she told Nikkei Asia on Monday.

"What we've seen instead is government forces, including heavily armed military police, disproportionately mobilized to terrorize and arrest peacefully striking workers and union leaders."

In a letter on Sunday, the Ministry of Labor invited aggrieved workers to submit information about their pay dispute to the ministry. It said if it found they had been inadequately paid it would order the employer to pay more.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the ministry had "tried very hard so far but failed" to reconcile the company and employees. He said the union had not abided by the arbitration ruling, Nikkei Asia reports.

"So [the] next step," he said, "is to go to the court after a peaceful and legal industrial action has been performed. Only the court has the jurisdiction to say [whether] an industrial action is legal or not.

Despite the arrests, some 300 workers continued their protest on Monday. So far, nine union members are facing legal action. In a letter released on Monday, the Phnom Penh municipal court said a prosecutor was investigating the group "and their accomplices" on a charge of "incitement to cause a disturbance to social security." The charge, often used to prosecute dissidents, carries a maximum prison term of two years. At least six of those charged are in custody. Among those named in the letter but not yet arrested is union President Chhim Sithar.

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