Cambodia government is ‘playing with fire,’ defiant labor leader says

The day before her arrest for leading a strike against one of the most profitable gaming companies in the world, Chhim Sithar shaved her hair and had a photo taken of herself holding a banner declaring: “I am imprison[ed] after demanding Naga Corp. to respect union right[s].”

It was, her family and colleagues said, a typically fearless act of defiance for the university educated 34-year-old labor leader, who was immediately detained by police in plainclothes when she arrived at the site of the strike on Jan. 4.

As president of Labor Rights Supported by Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, Chhim Sithar has been at the forefront of a massive strike of workers who are demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of 365 union leaders and members the group says was unjustly fired from the hotel and casino.

Cambodian authorities have deemed the strike “illegal” and say it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government. Chhim Sithar was charged along with seven other colleagues with incitement to cause social unrest.

Labor leaders say the government’s response is really about preventing any meaningful worker reforms in the country.

“By arresting our union members, the government is playing with fire,” Chhim Sithar told RFA a day before her arrest.

She said that it would “bring further shame” on Cambodia’s global image to deny workers the basic rights to organize and fight for themselves.

In the five days from Dec. 31 to Jan. 4, authorities in Phnom Penh arrested 29 strikers, union activists, and union leaders, including a tricycle driver and several pregnant women who the labor group says were unjustly fired by NagaWorld.

Authorities later released 20 of them after they signed agreements not to rejoin the strike. One of the workers was placed under judicial supervision.

Chhim Sithar is now being held on incitement charges in Prey Sar Prison. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riels (U.S. $974,000). Seven other union members also charged with incitement are also in custody.

The union leader previously told RFA that she was ready to face persecution to fight for labor rights in Cambodia that she says are not yet fully upheld.

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Cambodian union leader Chhim Sithar is arrest by plainclothes police in Phnom Penh, Jan. 4, 2022. Credit: Citizen Journalist

Math whiz, labor rights defender

Chhim Sithar was born into a middle-class in Prey Veng province’s Peam Chor district but grew up in Phnom Penh when her parents moved there for work.

The second child among five siblings, she excelled in mathematics at the renowned elite Preah Sisowath High School and studied economic informatics on a scholarship at the Royal University of Law and Economics.

She is fluent in English and Chinese and is able to communicate well in Thai. She began to work at NagaWorld casino in 2006. A year later she joined the union.

In a previous interview with RFA, Chhim Sithar said she became motivated to take on a more active role in the union when she saw its leaders punished for pushing for better working conditions and higher employee wages.

For years now, it has been Chhim Sithar herself bearing the brunt of the fight. She was suspended by NagaWorld on the night of Sept. 20, 2019, after she pressed management for an explanation as to why it ordered company security guards to inspect an employee’s bag.

During the bag check, guards confiscated a T-shirt saying, “Decent wages for workers bring about the company’s growth.” The company accused Chhim Sithar of being behind the T-shirt campaign. She was not reinstated until Cambodia was hit hard by the COVID-19 virus in early 2021 and NagaWorld needed workers.

NagaWorld also sued Chhim Sithar for U.S. $1.7 million for leading what it said were illegal strikes in 2013 that damaged the company’s interests. The lawsuit has yet to be heard by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but in the meantime, Chhim Sithar filed an appeal against the court’s procedures for trying to turn the collective labor dispute into personal dispute targeting her.

“I am happy to see that she dares to devote her work to her colleagues for the sake of labor rights,” Chhim Yiek, Chhim Sithar’s elder brother, told RFA. “She is well-loved by her colleagues and team for the fact that she effortlessly advocates for them.”

Chhim Yiek said he supported his sister’s education in Phnom Penh, and that she attained the highest level of education of any member of the family. He said his sister never wanted to marry, but instead had devoted herself to her fight for labor rights up to the day she was arrested.

Ou Tephalin, president of Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation and a close friend of Chhim Sithar, described the union leader as resolute and willing to risk her personal freedom for the sake of her coworkers . She isn’t paid for her union work, Ou Tephalin said.

“Wherever Sithar has gone, she has never forgotten to talk about social issues, even though it could be holiday time when we normally don't want to talk about negative or stressful things,” she said. “Sithar remains outspoken.”

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People gather in front of NagaWorld hotel and casino during a strike by Cambodian workers calling for higher pay and better working conditions, in Phnom Penh, Jan. 10, 2020. Credit: AFP

Examining the root causes

Ou Tephalin said that Cambodian authorities have sided with casino management by arresting and detaining the eight union leaders. The goal, she said, is to break up the union.

“This is not the first time that NagaWorld has fired union leaders,” she said. “The first union leader was fired by the company before and the company continued its ongoing efforts to persecute the second union leader, including Miss Chhim Sithar.”

“If we examine the root causes, it is about the fact that the company itself is trying to obliterate leaders and their union from the company,” Ou Tephalin said. “The real intention of the workers is to protect the existence of the union to represent them within the company.”

NagaWorld casino is a subsidiary of NagaCorp Ltd., a Hong Kong exchange-listed company and one of the world’s most profitable gaming outfits. It claims to be the largest gaming entertainment company in the Mekong Region.

According to the company’s website, NagaWorld owns, manages, and operates Phnom Penh’s only integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex and enjoys a monopoly within a 200-kilometer (124-mile) radius of the capital until 2045.

A 2017 leaked text message by Chen Lip Keong, NagaCrp's chief executive officer, revealed to his close business ties with the wife and children of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the sons of Sok An, the late deputy prime minister. None of the parties confirmed or denied the leaked information.

Despite lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company reported that it generated U.S. $173 million in profit during the first half of 2020 and U.S. $74.7 million dollars during the same period in 2021.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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