Cambodia abused pandemic restrictions for union-busting, Human Rights Watch says

The government cares more about employers’ profits than workers’ welfare, sources told RFA.
By RFA Khmer
Cambodia abused pandemic restrictions for union-busting, Human Rights Watch says Police scuffle with striking NagaWorld protesters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 11, 2022.
Screenshot from citizen journalist video

Cambodia’s government used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for busting unions by jailing union members, preventing new unions from being formed, and stopping strikes and protests, a new report by Human Rights Watch said.

The report said that in addition to abusing coronavirus restrictions to crack down on workers asserting their rights, authorities also allowed employers to ignore labor regulations and treat workers unfairly in violation of Cambodian labor laws.

“The Cambodian government and unscrupulous employers used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to further restrict independent unions instead of protecting worker welfare and rights at a desperate time,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 

Robertson said labor rights in the Southeast Asian kingdom were backsliding and urged the international community to pressure the country’s authoritarian government to comply with labor rights obligations.

The report documented five examples of unfair dismissals and mass layoffs that targeted union leaders and activists, including the high-profile NagaWorld Casino controversy.

In December 2021, thousands of NagaWorld workers walked off their jobs, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders, three other jailed workers and many others they say were unjustly fired from the hotel and casino. The complex is owned by a Hong Kong-based company believed to have connections to family members of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Cambodian authorities called the strike illegal and alleged that it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government, and then repeatedly arrested protesters en masse for “violating pandemic health regulations.”

The Human Rights Watch report also documented Cambodian companies’ use of fixed-duration contracts to restrict workers’ rights. Employers were able to discontinue the contracts on a whim to target union leaders and activists, and get out of paying severance payments as required by law.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued an order to allow fixed-duration contracts to extend beyond two years, which the organization said was an “apparent violation of Cambodian labor law.”

Government entities that are supposed to protect labor are not acting, Human Rights Watch said. The Arbitration Council, which interprets labor law to settle disputes “has increasingly refused to rule against the ministry,” the report said.

Accurate reporting

The report accurately reflects the situation on the ground, sources in Cambodia told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service. 

Cambodia’s court system has been complicit in restricting labor rights, said Chhan Bora, who participated in the NagaWorld strike and is a member of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees.

She said the court has summoned her after NagaWorld Casino’s owner sued strikers, whom she said were trying to demand that the owner complies with Cambodian labor laws.

Having “government authorities as arbitrator in charge of solving this labor dispute are not independent,” said Chhan Bora. 

“The labor dispute has been protracted, and they cannot solve it,” she said. “Yet, they turn to support the [foreign] employer’s side and treat our Cambodian workers badly.”

Even though Cambodia is party to International Labor Organization conventions that protect the rights of association, organization and collective bargaining, newly created Cambodian laws go against these conventions, said Ou Tep Phallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation.

“Cambodian workers face difficulties in forming their unions, in registering their unions. They are subject to government pressure,” said Ou Tep Phallin. 

“I think the whole system of the government is not to promote civic rights, but to promote the employers’ wealth to arbitrarily do anything [against workers],” she said.   

RFA attempted to contact government spokespeople from the government, the labor ministry, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and the government-aligned Cambodian Human Rights Committee, but none could be reached as of Monday.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.