Phnom Penh authorities release 73 remaining Cambodian casino strikers

Officials retreat from requiring the detained workers to pay a steep fine as a condition of their release.
Phnom Penh authorities release 73 remaining Cambodian casino strikers NagaWorld Casino workers hold up placards during a protest outside the National Assembly building after several union members were arrested, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 5, 2022.

Authorities in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Friday released 73 striking employees of the NagaWorld Casino who were detained this week at a quarantine center on charges of violating COVID-19 protocols, RFA has learned.

Thousands of workers walked off their jobs 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, which is owned by a Hong Kong-based company.

Cambodian authorities called the strike “illegal” and alleged that it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government, but the recent arrests were attributed to alleged violations of pandemic health protections. Activists said the charges were trumped up to break up the strike.

After the government arrested and released 62 strikers on Monday and ordered two others into treatment when they tested positive for COVID-19, authorities warned that they would issue steep fines of 1-5 million riel ($245-1,230) to any more strikers who gathered to protest in large groups.

More arrests, releases and orders for COVID-19 treatment were made over the past week, but the remaining 73 detained workers were let go Friday without having to pay any fines, they told RFA.

Authorities also said the workers must agree to stop gathering to protest as a condition of their release, but the 73 strikers refused to sign statements to that effect. As a result, they were not provided with transportation and had to arrange their own rides home from the quarantine center.

Several Cambodian civil society groups, community organizations, and trade unions on Thursday accused governmental officials of sexually harassing female strikers, including a report that a male officer grabbed and squeezed a female striker’s breast while forcing her onto a bus.

The city government on Thursday denied mistreating the strikers in a statement.

“It’s obvious that we were sexually abused by the authorities, and we will continue to demand our labor rights,” Siek Kanha, a woman among the group released on Friday, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

She vowed to continue to protest until the courts release the union leaders who are still detained.

RFA was unable to reach any officials from the Phnom Penh City Hall.

The Cambodian authorities’ abuse of public health measures to stifle a peaceful strike is “outrageous and unacceptable,” Phil Roberston, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“This continued harassment against striking workers exercising their rights is a blatant attempt to silence these brave workers’ voices, and weaken Cambodia’s union movement,” Robertson said.

He noted that many of the strikers were wearing masks, social distancing, and getting tested for COVID-19 in accordance with the government’s health measures.

“They have done nothing that justifies the authorities’ actions to detain them, shove them into overcrowded buses, and then hold them against their will for further COVID-19 testing at a quarantine site that lacks appropriate sanitation and health facilities due to inadequate access to water for washing and drinking,” he said.

“Government officials involved are not fooling anyone. Their claims that the workers violated COVID-19 measures is a fabricated cover story showing the lengths to which the authorities are prepared to go to stop the NagaWorld strike.” 

Authorities continue to hold in pre-trial detention 11 labor union members and leaders who were arrested in December 2021. Eight unionists are charged with incitement to commit a felony and face up to two years in prison if convicted. Three others are charged with “obstruction of COVID-19 measures,” which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

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


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