The Cambodian government is coming under increasing criticism locally and internationally for using public health measures to quell a strike arising from a labor dispute at the country’s largest casino
PHNOM PENH–Authorities arrested 64 NagaWorld workers on the afternoon of Feb. 21 and took them to quarantine facility in Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov District while the workers attempted to hold their strike near the casino.
San Sokseiha, Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman, said that 56 women and eight men were arrested for allegedly violating guidelines set out of by the Phnom Penh City Hall and the Ministry of Health.
Sokseiha added that all 64 will be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined.
The strike, which has been ongoing since Dec. 18, 2021, was recently confined to Freedom Park by Phnom Penh authorities on Feb. 15, but rights activists and the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld (LRSU) have said this is a violation of their right to strike outside their place of business.
The arrests took place outside the Build Bright University, around the corner from both Naga 1 and Naga 2.
“They have repeatedly violated the directives of the Ministry of Health and Phnom Penh Municipal Administration which banned illegal demonstrations, and among them, there is a high risk of transmission of Omicron virus,” Sokseiha confirmed. “They don’t follow the [authorities’] instructions, that’s why police have taken action to bring them to the Prek Pnov facility.”
But while Phnom Penh City Hall cited public order and the risk of COVID-19 transmission as a justification for banning the strike, Khun Tharo, program manager at rights group CENTRAL, said that authorities are continuing to use any and all means to prevent a peaceful strike.
“They were forced into buses by authorities,” he said. “If they [the authorities] try to solve it through prohibition, then this case won’t be solved for a long time.”
LRSU said on Feb. 21 that all those participating in today’s strike had finished their mandatory quarantine after complying with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines and had all tested negative for COVID-19 twice prior to arriving at the strike.
They added that they had followed authorities’ instructions to test twice for COVID-19 between Feb. 5 and Feb. 16 while quarantining, but Phnom Penh City Hall threatened the NagaWorld union with administrative and legal measures “In case of stubbornly continuing illegal activities.”
LRSU maintain that they have the right to strike outside the company grounds in accordance with the Cambodian Labor Law and called on the authorities to actively seek a solution instead of threatening them.
Phnom Penh City Hall has repeatedly warned the union that if it doesn’t end the strike, it will find means of punishing them and on Feb. 5, the authorities made three arrests at the NagaWorld strike, using the controversial COVID-19 law and claiming that the strike was obstructing health measures.
No restrictions have been reintroduced in Cambodia, despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases—which did not go unnoticed by UN human rights experts who, on Feb. 16, issued a statement condemning the government’s actions as a crackdown disguised as a public health response.
“There is a general inconsistency and lack of transparency in Cambodia’s COVID-19 protocols,” the experts said. “In this case, authorities appear to have dressed up efforts to stifle peaceful and lawful labor action as public health measures. There cannot be one rule for striking workers and another rule entirely for the general public.”
Toy Khengpolrith, a 52-year-old NagaWorld striker currently quarantined in the Olympic Stadium COVID-19 quarantine center, said that the strike is about small issues and could easily be dealt with if the company would deal directly with the union.
He lamented the fact that NagaWorld workers have complied fully with the Ministry of Health and are still being arrested.
“We always follow the Health Ministry’s measures by doing tests and quarantining, but they still accuse us [of violating the health measures]. I don’t really know what is the purpose and mechanism of the Health Ministry and the authorities, they want us to do tests, we follow the guidelines, they require us to quarantine, we respect that and finally they still arrest us” he said.
Polrith called on NagaWorld to find a solution for the remaining workers and not to hide behind the authorities who he said will find any excuse to arrest workers.
“We will keep demanding solutions. If they arrest 64 people today, the others will come tomorrow until we get solutions. We don’t violate any rules and regulations. They want to break our team and solidarity,” Polrith said.
So far 11 union leaders and activists remain in prison, eight on charges of incitement, while three are accused of obstructing COVID-19 measures, but the arrests have done little to prevent the strike from continuing.
LRSU continue to demand that the company finds a solution for the 360 workers who were laid off, but NagaWorld, a Hong Kong listed company, has remained largely silent and has declined to speak directly with the press since the strike began.