Casino workers on strike in Cambodia face down repression

Andrei Komar reports on a strike among casino and hotel workers in Phnom Penh. Image courtesy Mss Kanha, via Facebook.

The escalation by authorities to repress a nearly two month-long strike at Cambodia’s largest casino and hotel has union members on edge, but undeterred in their struggle to win reinstatement for workers fired during the pandemic, and the release of union leaders from prison.

The sprawling NagaWorld casino complex reaches far into the Phnom Penh sky, just where the powerful Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers merge. The structures cast a long shadow over the surrounding neighborhood, and on union members who regularly fill the streets in protest over what continues to be an uphill labor battle in the “Kingdom of Wonder.”

Rotha Chem is a young union activist in the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU) who started working at the casino as a dealer five years ago. One major issue that punished her to become more actively engaged in the ranks of the union was the continued abuse she received from patrons of the casino. “The company never cared,” she said. “It’s like the customer is the king.” She soon learned that it was not management, but union activists who pushed back against this. “It was only the union that protects us,” Chem recounted. She joined and before long became a “union activist” as she proudly calls herself. 

The LRSU membership is overwhelmingly made up of women, between 70%-80%. The union is independent of the main trade union federation connected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. It is part of a growing movement of other independent unions, some of which have connections to opposition parties.

As the world reeled from the chaos and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, NagaWorld drastically cut their workforce by terminating 1,300 workers from a workforce of over 8,300. Rotha Chem is quick to point out that management targeted union members and leadership. A total of 1,100 of the workers sacked were in the union. And while many of the workers agreed to take a severance pay and leave, 365 union members demanded they get rehired. The fight was on.

The company is also accused of violating labor law by keeping on new hires while they fired senior employees and pregnant workers, many of whom are union members. 

While management contends that they had to fire workers in response to the grim reality of COVID-19, the company and CEO Chen Lip Keong continued to make profits during the pandemic. With a staggering net worth at $3.3 billion, Keong is listed by Forbes as one of the richest people in the world. It was reported that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family have deep ties to the billionaire and have much to gain financially from NagaWorld.

According to a press release from the company, NagaWorld made a $16 million profit last year, and hard capital assets rocketed from $174 million in 2020 to $384 million in 2021. The company raked in a $102.3 million profit in 2020, and $869 million in 2019. The parent company of NagaWorld, NagaCorp, is registered in the tax haven Cayman Islands. Keong’s business dealings were revealed in the Pandora Papers, which showed in detail how world elites avoid taxes, and make their personal wealth soar through the use of tax havens. Billions of dollars from Cayman Islands-based holding companies, considerable government kickbacks, and the use of violent force in an attempt to dismantle the union are what lined the pockets of Chen Lip Keong. 

While striking workers are left in the lurch, the company is also in the midst of a major expansion. The $3.5 billion NagaWorld 3 complex is currently under construction. The new hotel is projected to be the tallest building in the entire nation: a modern-day Tower of Babel. The iconic White Building was razed and hundreds of tenants forcibly evicted to make way for the concrete juggernaut. Mass evictions of poor and working-class families are a constant occurrence in the nation’s capitol. Cases of violent evictions where tenants are cleared by construction workers and police wielding crowbars and other weapons are not uncommon.

The union however was willing to bet their collective power against extreme wealth and privilege. Initially, LRSU went to the bargaining table, but when management continued to stall, workers escalated by going out on strike on December 18.

Although Rotha Chem was not one of the original laid off workers, she joined the strike and immersed herself in the day-to-day activities of carrying out a workplace action that involved over 1,000 union members. 

“We still have 1,000 Sithars!”

Union organizing comes with added risks in Cambodia, a nation that is rapidly developing, but exists largely as an extractive economy for foreign investors and capital. While some Cambodians have benefited from this, for the vast majority it remains a nation saddled with poverty and social stratification. The nation’s prime minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge defector, has maintained an iron grip on power since 1985. Opposition and dissent are repressed, at times violently. 

In 2004, the charismatic president of the Cambodian Free Trade Union (CFTU), Chea Vichea, was assassinated. Two men were used as scapegoats for the killing and were eventually exonerated after serving six years in prison. Months later, CFTU union leader Ros Sovannarith was gunned down, followed by another union leader, Hy Vuthy. The assassins for all three targeted killings remain at large.

More recently, less violent measures, but ones that send a clear message to union activists, continue. In August 2021 president of the independent Cambodian Federation of Unions Ron Chhun was sentenced to two years in prison, and two activists peacefully demanding his release were sentenced to twenty months each.

While union activists at NagaWorld have not met the same fate, the heavy hand of the state eventually slammed down on the LRSU. On the evening of December 31, police surrounded union headquarters and arrested eight union leaders. Union president Chhim Sithar believes she was targeted for arrest that night but was not present. Over 20 union activists were tracked down in the following four days and arrested – they were released only after signing documents stating they would not return to the strike.

Chhim Sithar stayed in safe houses but knew that time was rapidly running out before she too would be arrested. On January 4 she emerged again, risking arrest, to attend the strike. Plainclothes police immediately grabbed her, and violently took her into custody. She was charged with incitement and could face up to two years in prison and pay nearly $1,000,000 if convicted.

Union activist Pov Kalyan was one of many witnesses to the brutal arrest. “They arrested one Sithar, but we still have a thousand Sithars. Arrest us as they wish,” he was quoted by independent news outlet VOD English, which has provided extensive coverage of the strike. 

Union members launched a campaign to demand union leaders be released from prison. They garnered the support of hundreds of unions, NGOs, activist organizations, and communities fighting for land rights and against deforestation in Cambodia, solidarity from gas station and bottling factory workers, and support from union activists around the world. The workers are refusing to meet at the bargaining table until LMRU activists are freed from their prison cells.

The leadership is still behind bars, but the strike has only escalated.

Union-busting in the name of “public health”

The company pivoted to a different approach after a union member tested positive for COVID-19 on January 28. If police violence and throwing union leadership in prison would not break the strike, perhaps union-busting efforts in the name of “public health” would. The Health Ministry sent a message to the union demanding that all striking workers get tested for Covid-19, then self-quarantine for ten days, even if they tested negative. 

This was a convenient excuse by the authorities to clear the pickets from the streets surrounding NagaWorld, and union activists and their supporters quickly saw through this hypocrisy. The worker who tested positive was pregnant. “She worried about her health and her baby so she [rarely] came out to the strike,” said Chem, adding that January 15 was the last day her coworker was on the picket line. 

When public health officials came to test workers near the strike location on February 6, management “got the cops to spread around strikers and not let anyone come out,” said Rotha Chem. “People were not even allowed to go to the toilet. It was so bad.” And while the striking workers were required to take COVID tests, none of the employees inside NagaWorld were asked to do the same, nor anyone in the mass crowds that gather daily at Riverside Park, or the AEON Mall Phnom Penh, both within walking distance of NagaWorld.

In fact, this was the first mass testing event the Cambodian government had enacted since Prime Minister Hun Sen ended contact tracing in September of 2021. The workers were given very selective, and very politically motivated treatment from the government. 

To Chem and her coworkers, it seemed like the government response has less to do with public health and more to do with retribution for taking collective union action. This point became more painfully evident the day she got tested. After hundreds of workers were tested, they were informed by officials they should go home to self-isolate. 

Following orders, workers started to leave the testing site, but in a show of force, and with no justification given, the police arrested the first six workers who left. Although three were later released, the other workers were charged with violating the nation’s COVID-19 law. If found guilty, they could face up to 20 years in prison.

Rotha Chem was there that night, and was in a state of disbelief over what she witnessed. “I’m feeling like: why? We just did the strike for our rights and worker rights and human rights so why did they make this happen? Is that fair for the workers? They only came to strike about our rights in the workplace and they got arrested!” She fought back tears while she asked, “What happened here? What’s going on here?”

NagaWorld’s feigned concern over public health was a sticking point for Rotha Chem and her coworkers. The union had demanded expanded safety measures for COVID early on in the pandemic (and reinforced these with collective actions, including short strikes) from a reluctant employer who was prioritizing maximum profit at the expense of worker safety and rights. The strikes were successful.

“We can’t accept it.”

While Rotha Chem and her coworkers continue to sit in self-quarantine, they have switched gears in circulating a petition and continuing an online campaign to push their demands. She and others are itching to get back in the streets. “All the strikers strongly stand to fight this company in this pandemic,” said Chem, adding that the workers will continue the strike and “will stay here until our 12 union leader activists and members are released and the company takes the 365 employees back to work.”

When asked how she and her fellow union members in LRSU are handling the continued repression, she said simply: “We can’t accept it.”

Andrei Komar is an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.