Several members of a NagaWorld trade union have been accused of incitement by Cambodian authorities, as local police forces have extended their crackdown on the ongoing strike against the country’s casino giant.
Following a 2-day pause after the arrest of 10 union members on New Year’s Eve, campaigners resumed their strike on the afternoon of January 3rd. The protest takes place in close proximity to the Phnom Penh-based NagaWorld complex. According to observers of the scene, at the time when the strike was resumed, military police detained no less than 15 campaigners, including a pregnant woman.
The industrial action kicked off on December 18th, 2021. NagaWorld, a Cambodian gambling giant which parent company is currently listed in Hong Kong, laid off over 1,300 of its workers in 2021 after its revenue was seriously affected by a number of Covid-19-related disruptions. As a response to the company’s actions, a local trade union, called Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of Nagaworld, urged the casino operator to reinstate 365 workers who did not accept the compensation offered to them in their contract termination package. The union has also tabled several demands, associated with contracts, wagers, and severance.
The Cambodian authorities have declared the strike illegal, with a judge saying that the trade union had not followed arbitration procedures correctly. Furthermore, municipality officials claimed that the strike breached the Government’s restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as some rules on demonstrations.
A couple of days ago, the Ministry of Labor sent a letter to the casino company employees, inviting them to table information regarding their pay dispute. It explained that if it found that the gambling operator had paid them inadequate wages, the casino company would be ordered to increase the workers’ wages.
Before the aforementioned lay-offs took action in 2021, a total of 4,000 employees of NagaWorld were union members, with approximately 2,800 union members remaining at their jobs following the lay-offs.
NagaWorld Remains on Track of Planned Phnom Pehn Expansion Despite Negative Effects of Covid-19 Pandemic
As a response, the basis of the official rulings has been disputed by civil society groups, who claimed they undermine people’s rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Constitution of Cambodia.
Although there has been continuous pressure on the campaigners by the local authorities, daily demonstrations have been held, with the number of participants oftentimes rising to over 1,000 people.
For the time being, the casino and gambling giant NagaWorld holds a monopoly license in Phnom Penh. According to a 2018 analysis by Gambling Compliance, the operator was one of the most profitable casinos on a global scale in that same year. The casino managed to safely navigate its operations throughout the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, with a net profit of $102 million registered in 2020, although a 3-month shutdown starting in April 2020 appeared as a major blow to the local tourism sector. A few more months of lockdown in 2021 resulted in a record $77-million loss in the first six months of the year. Even though the last two years have not been easy for NagaWorld, the company has not stopped working on a planned expansion of its Phnom Pehn-based facilities that has been estimated at $3 billion.
At the time of the New Year’s Eve police action, about 100 uniformed police surrounded striking employees of the casino operator, who tried to prevent their colleagues from being arrested. The trade union’s headquarters have also been raided by the police, with a number of people being detained.
For the time being, 9 union members are facing legal action, with the group and “their accomplices” being investigated on charges of incitement aimed at causing a social security disturbance. The charge is associated with a maximum prison sentence of 2 years. No less than 6 of those people are in custody.
The trade union President Chhim Sithar explained to a local media that negotiations between the company and the representatives of the employees had stalled and NagaWorld workers remained determined to see their demands brought to life. He further shared that the pressure used by the authorities, including the arrests, court action and the intimidation of the workers would not put the dispute to an end just like that, because the workers planned to continue their fight. According to Ms. Sithar, the authorities’ response to the situation was too exaggerated, especially in comparison to the workers’ actions that so far included peaceful strikes.