Over the weekend more than a dozen employees of Giant Ibis Transport, a bus company which appears to be owned by tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group, gathered in Phnom Penh to demand they receive severance and seniority payments they say they are legally owed after being laid off several years ago when the company suspended operations due to the pandemic.
“From 2020 to 2023, it’s been years!” said laid off bus driver Siem Morady. “There are no new jobs for us, we have been suspended [without pay] and we have not been given any severance payment.”
Morady and around 80 co-workers were laid off in April 2020. At the time, the company gave laid off workers the choice of being removed from their positions permanently while receiving $1,000 in seniority benefits without severance payment or else waiting to be reinstated without receiving any payment, a violation of labor law, the workers and multiple labor rights activists point out. The suspended workers are each legally owed approximately $4,000 in benefits and lost wages, Morady says.
“The company committed a totally illegal act that resulted in the loss of benefits as well as the loss of our severance payment during the suspension,” Morady said. “And the company also intends for us to quit on our own, since it started running [in early 2022] but has not taken us back.”
The protestors also allege the company has discriminated against union members by refusing to reinstate them on fair terms, privileging non-union members. Of the company’s 30 laid off union employees, just six have been offered their jobs back. They were forced to sign new contracts requiring them to forfeit their previously owed benefits, Morady said.
Morady and his colleagues formed the union in May 2020, the month after they were laid off. By October that year, the union had been accepted as a registered union by the government, according to documents seen by CamboJA.
Khun Tharo, program manager for the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said the bus company had violated labor law since the company did not appear to have had approval from the Ministry of Labor for a years-long suspension of its workers. Under Cambodian law, suspensions longer than two months require permission from the government’s Labor Inspectorate, Tharo said.
“In the case that the suspension is not following legal procedures, the employer is responsible for the full payment of wages, including compensation to workers, from the date of suspension until the date of return to work,” Tharo said.
Ministry of Labor spokesperson Heng Sour did not address whether the company had received approval for its suspension of workers but said the Ministry was aware of the case.
“The Ministry is reviewing because the company has not yet returned to 100% normal [operations],” Sour said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, which helped the Giant Ibis employees unionize, said that workers have chosen to send a letter to the Labor Ministry seeking resolution. They would continue to protest the company because they did not trust that the court system would treat their case fairly.
“As we all know, when it comes to the court, the issue involving the worker is very difficult to hope for [a win],” Thorn said. “I suggest that the company should solve this problem.”
Giant Ibis, which bills itself as Cambodia’s “leading responsible bus company,” was established in 2011, started domestic operations in 2012, and has since expanded its routes to Vietnam and Thailand.
Ministry of Commerce records list Giant Ibis’s chairman and owner as a man named Ngeth Bora, who could not be reached for comment.
But Morady and others say the company is really owned by Kith Meng, a well-known Neak Oknha who owns a swath of businesses under the Royal Group conglomerate, of which he is chairman and CEO. The conglomerate’s operations include the major telecommunications provider Cellcard, several leading media outlets and the Cambodian importation rights for BMW.
A page on Royal Group’s website says that it “launched” Giant Ibis Transport after 2011. A 2016 Facebook post by a Royal Group subsidiary says “we are proud to be part of the Royal Group of Companies along with our family such as…Giant Ibis” while listing seven Royal Group-owned companies.
An Australian national named Jacob Montross is described as the “founder and managing partner” of Giant Ibis and a senior member of Royal Group, according to Australia’s Certified Management Accountants association. Montross could not be reached for comment.
But Royal Group does not list the company elsewhere on its website and Giant Ibis does not publicly acknowledge any corporate relationship. No transfer of ownership or sale of Giant Ibis from within Royal Group is listed on either companies’ websites or Commerce Ministry records.
A former longtime employee of Giant Ibis, who declined to speak openly, acknowledged there was a connection with Royal Group but denied that the conglomerate’s chairman was a direct owner.
A Royal Group staffer who answered a number listed for Kith Meng on his Chamber of Commerce page said she had “never heard” of the bus company being part of the conglomerate.
Meng did not respond to requests for comment. He is among a select group of prominent tycoons who recently formed an association to oversee the ethics of other oknhas, who receive the honorific title of “lord” for donating hundreds of thousands to the government. The association’s spokesperson, tycoon Hun Lak, confirmed Meng’s role in the association. Meng is also president of Cambodia’s Chamber of Commerce.
When asked if Meng should be seen as an ethical role model for his fellow tycoons, Lak laughed.
“Why are you asking this? He is not really related [to my businesses],” Lak said, hanging up.
As the workers of the company under Meng’s ownership seek the tens of thousands in wages they say they are collectively owed, the toll of waiting to be rehired and compensated is severely impacting their lives.
Father of two and laid off Giant Ibis bus driver Or Chanty said his family’s primary income now came from his wife’s small business as a tailor. He was afraid that if he tried to find a new formal job and lost his suspended employee status, he would never get rehired by Giant Ibis and would lose out on the severance payment he was otherwise owed.
“If they know the information about me going to work or sending my CV somewhere else, there will be some people who have a bad intention to us and will report to the [Giant Ibis] company, so we cannot,” he said.
Other suspended employees, hoping to be rehired without sacrificing thousands of dollars they say are owed to them, have survived by farming vegetables in their hometown provinces.
After two days of protesting in Phnom Penh, the group of laid off union members had to return to their hometowns because they could not afford to continue their protest. But they said they planned to gather again soon if they could pool enough money to support other union members’ travel to the capital.
Morady was pessimistic about his union’s ability to get justice according to the law.
“There is no government or authority that values us, a union that is registered by the ministry,” Morady says. “We see labor laws in Cambodia, but why are they not applied? Why do companies not respect the law? What we see in Cambodia is very unfair.”