City hall orders Cambodian casino workers to end strike

Authorities cite COVID concerns, but activists say the motive is to block labor reform.
2022.02.04
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City hall orders Cambodian casino workers to end strike NagaWorld casino workers gather around a banner showing eight union leaders and members who were jailed by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
RFA

Authorities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh have ordered workers from the NagaWorld Casino to immediately stop a long-running strike protesting labor conditions there, claiming the demonstrators could be spreading the coronavirus.

Labor leaders say the government’s response is really about preventing meaningful worker’s rights reforms in the country.

The order from Phnom Penh City Hall came after the Ministry of Health said that a striking worker tested positive for COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 Combatting Committee advises workers to immediately stop gathering to hold demonstrations until such time that there is assurance that COVID-19 will not spread among the group,” the committee said in a statement Feb. 4.

“In the case of stubbornness that leads to community infections, the concerned individuals will be fined and prosecuted,” it said.

Thousands of workers began their strike in mid-December, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and 365 workers they say were unjustly fired from the hotel and casino.

Cambodian authorities have deemed the strike “illegal” and say it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government.

A NagaWorld union member, Ouk Sopheak Molica, refused to comment on the order from City Hall, saying the workers have not decided how to respond. 

The worker identified by the health ministry as COVID-19-positive, Chhuon Sam An, told RFA’s Khmer Service that she did not get COVID-19 from the workers on strike.

After she tested positive, the ministry ordered all the striking workers to get tested for the virus within three days. The ministry has also warned of serious legal consequences if they fail to follow through.

The workers have asked the Ministry of Health to conduct the tests where they are holding the strike demonstrations, instead of requiring them to travel to test centers.

Khun Tharo, program coordinator for the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, a workers rights group based in Phnom Penh, told RFA that he is skeptical that City Hall’s demand the strike be ended was motivated by COVID concerns.

“It seems there is something hidden behind their orders. We must seek the truth about the intentions behind the ministry’s order,” he said. 

The workers have been on strike for the past 50 days. Authorities in Phnom Penh arrested 29 strikers, union activists, and union leaders from Dec. 31 to Jan. 4, including several pregnant women who the labor group says were unjustly fired by NagaWorld.

Of those arrested, 20 were later released after they pledged not to rejoin the strike. Another worker was placed under judicial supervision.

NagaWorld casino is a subsidiary of NagaCorp, a Hong Kong exchange-listed company and one of the world’s most profitable gaming outfits. It claims to be the largest gaming entertainment company in the Mekong Region.

According to the company’s website, NagaWorld owns, manages, and operates Phnom Penh’s only integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex and enjoys a monopoly within a 200-kilometer (124-mile) radius of the capital until 2045.

A 2017 leaked text message by Chen Lip Keong, NagaCorp's chief executive officer, revealed his close business ties with the wife and children of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the sons of Sok An, the late deputy prime minister. None of the parties confirmed or denied the leaked information.

Despite lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company reported that it generated U.S. $173 million in profit during the first half of 2020 and U.S. $74.7 million dollars during the same period in 2021.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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