NagaWorld casino union leader sentenced to 2 years in prison

A Phnom Penh court has sentenced a prominent union leader who led a strike at a casino demanding better wages and working conditions to two years in prison on incitement charges. 

Chhim Sithar was initially arrested in December 2021 and was charged with “inciting social chaos” for leading a strike at the NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex, one of the world’s most profitable gambling centers.

Workers were demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union members and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired. 

Chhim Sithar was released on bail but was again arrested last November after returning to Cambodia from a labor conference in Australia for violating bail conditions that apparently restricted her from leaving the country. Her lawyer has argued she was never properly informed of the travel restrictions. 

That arrest was condemned by NagaWorld strikers, civil society officials and the U.S. State Department. New York-based Human Rights Watch has said her case is part of a larger government crackdown on Cambodia’s unions.

‘Blatant attack on unions’

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday also sentenced the eight union members to between one year and one and a half years in prison, but suspended those sentences.

“I can’t accept it because I am innocent,” said Ry Sovanndy, who was sentenced to one year in prison. “I can’t incite anything but I was convicted. I can’t accept it. I will appeal the decision because I can’t accept this injustice verdict.”

NagaWorld Casino workers hold up placards during a protest outside the National Assembly building after several union members were arrested, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 4, 2022. Credit: Reuters

The convictions of Chhim Sithar and the others “is a blatant attack on unions and workers,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s Interim Deputy Regional Director for Research.

“This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people,” he said.

The long-running labor dispute at NagaWorld, which continues to this day, began when the company laid off more than 1,300 employees, about half of them union members, in April 2021.

Casino worker Siek Panha protested in front of the court and told Radio Free Asia that the court should change its name to “NagaWorld Court.”

A supporter to NagaWorld’s union leader Chhim Sithar cries in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, May 25, 2023. Credit: Associated Press

“The court is hired by NagaWorld. I am suffering and speechless,” she said. “She [Chhim Sithor] defended union rights but she was sentenced to two years in jail.”

Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho, told RFA that the workers’ protests couldn’t have been a crime. They were simply asking for a solution from casino management, he said. 

“The convictions specially against Chhim Sithor is a violation against union rights. The workers were protesting to seek solutions,” he said. 

RFA couldn’t reach court spokesman Y Rin for comment on Thursday. 

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Matt Reed.