After Union Dissolution, Phnom Penh Garbage Workers Toil in ‘Panic’

Cintri workers collect trash in Phnom Penh's Boeng Keng Kang I commune. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
Cintri workers collect trash in Phnom Penh's Boeng Keng Kang I commune. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
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For more than two weeks in October 2020, trash piled up across Phnom Penh as thousands of garbage collection workers went on strike.

One worker’s eyes were strained from trash fumes. Another lost fingers when a trash container was lowered onto his hand. Yet another suffered chronic body itching from exposure to rotting liquids.

But as tough as the jobs were, the workers wanted to keep them — hoping the action would secure severance payments and future employment ahead of a major restructuring to break up Phnom Penh’s single waste management contract, held by Cintri, into three different employers.

“I liked the company and wanted to stay with it,” recalled Chhun Mey, a former Cintri worker and union leader. He wanted a three-month severance package and a new contract.

He got neither. More than 100 of the 1,000-plus people who were fired during the reorganization — including Mey and Cintri’s two other union leaders — say the new jobs and compensation never materialized, while the union itself disappeared along with its leaders.

Workers say that managers at the three current companies — Cintri, Mizuda and G-800 Super — have verbally threatened them that forming a union or speaking out would lead to firings. Others described lower wages with no recourse for change.

Company representatives said that they have not banned workers from creating or joining unions. But Cintri acknowledged it was “strict” with former union leaders because they “didn’t serve the public interest” by going on strikes. A G-800 Super spokesperson said workers were “uneducated” and that the company was “careful” about letting them interact with outside unionists.

A Mizuda spokesperson acknowledged outright the company would not hire former Cintri unionists because they led strikes in the past. Cambodian labor law prohibits considering union status in hiring practices.

“We don’t have courage because we don’t have anyone to ask for help,” said a G-800 Super worker. “If we have a union, they could help solve [problems] for us. Now we could be easily fired for just a small mistake.”

“If we have a union, we have a dependable boss to help solve problems. Now, we work in panic.”

‘We Will Have Nothing To Eat’

Cintri workers say they ended their 2020 strike because they were promised future employment. But in reality, at least 117 of the 1,176 people fired during the transition didn’t get jobs — most of them union members or leaders.

Chhun Mey, who served as the Cintri union finance officer, was among them. When his termination became effective July 2021, he was told he had to apply for a new role and didn’t get hired, forcing him into months of unemployment before he found work mixing cement for $200 per month.

“It’s so difficult. We have two small kids, and I am the head of the family who used to support my wife and kids,” Mey said. “If we keep [protesting], it will be too late … We will have nothing to eat.”

Mey filed a complaint over to the Ministry of Labor alongside the other 116 workers. But the Ministry claimed the cases were not a collective dispute, and that each individual should lodge their own complaint in court. “They said they can’t help to force the companies to hire us,” Mey said.

Patrick Lee, a labor advocate with the organization Central who advocated on behalf of the case, said that “there’s absolutely no legal recourse for them.”

“Essentially everything they were promised has not been given to them. These weren’t oral agreements … These were made under facilitation of Phnom Penh city hall and were made — we thought — in good faith,” he said. “They weren’t making this agreement in good faith, but doing it to end the strike and get us to shut up.”

Working in Fear

A half-dozen current workers across the three companies described firings over small incidents, fear of taking time off, lower salaries and regular verbal warnings that forming an independent union would lead to their dismissals.

Other sources contacted by VOD said they were too scared to speak even anonymously. One said reporters should pose as job seekers to get information about the “real conditions” of the new workplaces.

A Mizuda worker said that although several workers from Cintri had been fired for small mistakes, later hires who came through connections with managers were not. One G-800 Super worker said multiple truck drivers had been dismissed for offenses such as taking a sick day off without informing their managers three days in advance.

In November 2021, 10 G-800 Super workers went to their home provinces during the Water Festival holiday but were called back to work in the middle of it. When they couldn’t make it back to Phnom Penh on time, they were dismissed, said Touch Kosal, president of the Cambodia Tourism Workers’ Union Federation that oversaw Cintri’s former union.

The Ministry once again said the dispute was not considered a collective labor problem. Filing individual cases in court was “impossible, as they are poor workers,” Kosal explained.

Another former Cintri worker now at G-800 Super said that his current $320 monthly salary, including all overtime work, is less than the $360 he was paid before. Night shift workers also get paid less, about $10 to $15 monthly compared to $20 to $30 before. He “doesn’t dare” join a union for fear of being fired, he said.

A 26-year-old father who collects trash for Mizuda got a boost to $227 monthly base salary, higher than what he got in his previous role at Cintri, along with a health check four times a year and tools such as gloves, shoes and masks.

Still, he knows anyone fraternizing with unionists will be fired. He attended the strike back in 2020 but has since decided he must accept the new rules, passing requests or problems through their managers. 

“We don’t need to gather people for protesting or demanding like before,” he said.

Companies Say Unionists Are ‘Problem’

Article 12 of the Labour Law and Article 62 of the Law on Trade Unions make it illegal for Cambodian employers to consider trade union membership in hiring, promotion or dismissal decisions. Yet Mizuda admits to doing exactly that.

Sieng Samuttmeas, assistant to Mizuda’s country director in Cambodia, denied that workers were fired on a whim and said that they receive one to three warnings for smaller offenses. But he agreed that the company does not hire former Cintri unionists, explaining it was because the union had conducted the strikes that impacted garbage collection in the city. 

“If there were [strikes] occurring and the working process would be interrupted, it would affect the reputation of the City Hall and we will have problems with City Hall too,” he said. “So anyone that used to be the unionist of the previous company [Cintri], we won’t hire.”

Employees with complaints can seek solutions from the administrative officers or him directly, he said.

Cintri and G-800 Super representatives claimed they had not banned unions but seemed to contradict themselves moments later. All three companies disputed that workers had been fired for small mistakes.

Sou Sothea, administrative manager at G-800 Super, said that the company commits to “international working standards as it has foreign investors from France and Singapore, not just Khmer.”

“Most garbage collectors are uneducated. They easily believe and follow what somebody tells them,” he said. The company is “careful of this behavior because it could cause a complicated problem for the company operation, reputation and business,” he said, referring to outside unionists.

Cintri’s vice president Sokh Huot denied the company has banned workers outright from unionizing or dismissed them for minor offenses. But the company is “strict” about forming unions, he said.

“The previous trade union is considered a union that didn’t serve the public,” he said. “[They] caused difficult activities for the cleaning sector. So we are strict to those individuals. For the others, they have rights, but only if they really serve the public interest.”

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