A court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh Monday released on bail eight union leaders who represent the striking workers of the NagaWorld Casino, providing hope that the months-long labor dispute is heading toward a resolution, a released union member told RFA.
The decision by the Phnom Penh municipal court reverses the appellate court’s decision last week to deny bail on the grounds that the labor leaders were still under investigation.
Ry Sovandy, one of the eight who was released Monday, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the group plans to continue advocating for the rights of their coworkers and their union, despite their time in jail.
“Our stance is that the union has to be reinstated and the workers who want to work should be allowed to return,” she said. “Our position is purely based on the willingness of the workers. We will not accept any condition that leads to a dissolution of the union or only allows one party, the NagaWorld company, to win in this dispute.”
Thousands of NagaWorld workers walked off their jobs in mid-December, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of the eight jailed union leaders, three other jailed workers and 365 others they say were unjustly fired from the hotel and casino, which is owned by a Hong Kong-based company believed to have connections to family members of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Cambodian authorities have called the strike “illegal” and alleged that it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government. But a series of mass arrests in recent weeks have been attributed to alleged violations of pandemic health regulations in Cambodia’s capital. Activists said the charges were trumped up to break up the strike.
The eight leaders of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld released Monday are: Ry Sovandy, Hay Sopheap, Khleang Soben, Sun Srey Pich, Touch Serey Meas, former union member Sok Narith, union secretary Chhim Sokhon, and union president Chhim Sithor.
They had been detained for 74 days, accused of inciting social unrest.
The three other jailed workers are still being held in Phnom Penh Prison for obstructing the implementation of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The newly released leaders called on the court to drop all charges against them and to release the remaining three so that negotiations with NagaWorld can proceed.
The release came two days after the eight wrote separate letters to Minister of Labor and Vocational Training Ith Sam Heng, stating that they wanted to be released on bail to continue talks that will allow the workers to return to their jobs, Ry Sovandy said.
While imprisoned, Ry Sovandy said that she and the seven other union leaders faced a number of difficulties, but she said the group was especially disheartened over the abuse the strikers, many of whom are women, suffered at the hands of authorities. She commended the workers for persisting despite the harassment.
“I hope the Labor Ministry will continue to intervene to end this dispute between the company and the union. And I think it is unjust if the charges against us are not dropped because we have not incited anyone to commit crimes,” Ry Sovandy said.
In their bail request letter, the eight called for all employees on strike to be allowed to return to work. They said they would appeal to workers who were laid off to stay home during negotiations until a legal settlement is in place. They also called for the company not to retaliate against the striking employees.
The Phnom Penh-based Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights applauded the decision to release the eight unionists on bail, but Deputy Director Am Sam Ath said they should be completely freed before they enter negotiations.
“They did nothing wrong. The charges against them should be dropped,” he said. “They might still be under judicial pressure if they negotiate while still out on bail. Drop all the charges so that they can participate in transparent negotiations, which is the only way to reach a fair solution that respects integrity.”
Authorities on Monday again arrested a large group of demonstrating NagaWorld employees. The 162 arrested this time were forced onto waiting buses and taken to detention in a COVID-19 quarantine center in a Phnom Penh suburb.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng led a March 9 meeting to resolve the labor dispute, with the participation of ministers of several ministries such as the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health and officials from Phnom Penh. The results of the closed-door meeting were not announced.
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