Banks Block Overseas Transfers to NagaWorld Union Strikers

6 min read
ABA ATMs in Phnom Penh in May 2022. (Roun Ry/VOD)
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NagaWorld union members are alleging that ABA Bank blocked three transactions to their accounts from an overseas donor while giving various explanations about negative news of the union in the press or anti-money laundering measures.

The Labor Rights Supported Union of NagaWorld casino has been in dispute with the gambling corporation over the termination of 1,300 workers in 2021, out of which fewer than 200 workers are holding out for reinstatement. The protests have often taken a violent turn when district security guards and police officers use force to break up gatherings.

Three NagaWorld union members said they were expecting transfers from an overseas sender in October to support protesters without jobs or with babies, but were separately informed by a person saying they were from ABA Bank that the transfers were blocked.

Chhim Sokhorn and Klaing Soben told VOD they were expecting $5,050 each to be transferred into their ABA accounts. The two NagaWorld casino workers said they did not know where the money was coming from as union president Chhim Sithar was handling the grant application.

Sithar has been in pretrial detention since November when she was rearrested for allegedly breaking her bail conditions. Sithar, who was at a bail hearing at a Phnom Penh court last week, told VOD the grant was from the Urgent Action Fund in Australia, a feminist group in Australia that supports movements led by women and nonbinary activists.

VOD was unable to interview Sithar further in court.

Sokhorn and Soben both said they were separately contacted by an ABA staffer in October who questioned them on what they would do with the $5,050 transfers and raised the union’s ongoing dispute as the reason why the transactions had been blocked.

Sokhorn said an ABA employee named Sroy Mengty first contacted her on messaging application Telegram on October 13 and then on two other occasions on the 14th and 26th of the same month.

According to text and audio messages between the two of them on Telegram, Mengty informs Sokhorn on October 13 that the transfers will not be processed because of the “negative news about NagaWorld.” When he asks what the money will be used for, Sokhorn tells him it was to assist unemployed union members and for workers with children.

Mengty further says on the 14th: “The reason is because you don’t have proper documents for the money and have negative news about NagaWorld.”

Sokhorn continues to ask Mengty why the money was blocked, whether it was being sent back to the sender in Australia, and if her account had been frozen. He doesn’t reply until the 26th.

“It is because of the policy of the bank in case there is money laundering,” Mengty informs Sokhorn in a message on the 26th.

“From ABA, the money has been returned back. But I don’t know if an intermediary bank is involved. So it is out of our hands,” he adds, then stops replying to subsequent messages.

Sokhorn said she felt it was suspicious that the bank staffer would message her on Telegram, and not give her a single clear reason for blocking the money.

“The grant was to support protesting workers who don’t have jobs and those with babies. It was not for the protests but for those without jobs,” she said.

Soben, who was elected union treasurer last year, received similar text and voice messages from Mengty starting October 19. He asks her what the money is going to be used for, saying he needs to know before he can allow the “frozen” transaction to proceed.

“He said he needs to check if nothing bad will happen [with the money] and only then can he send it through,” Soben said in December.

Soben was first worried that her account would be frozen — a frequent conduit for small donations the union gets for supporting terminated workers. A week later, Mengty tells her that the money has been permanently blocked and sent back to the sender, but that her account is still active.

The two workers said they were unsure if the restrictions on their account were potentially because of bail conditions imposed on them following arrests related to the ongoing strike. Lawyers for Sithar have argued in court that jailed workers released on bail were not told the full conditions for their release.

VOD contacted Igor Zimarev, ABA’s chief marketing officer, and Khuon Pinoch, public relations supervisor, over the last two weeks, but they did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Emails sent to the Urgent Action Fund in Australia also went unanswered this week.

A NagaWorld protester in Phnom Penh on September 16, 2022. (Hean Rangsey/VOD)
A NagaWorld protester in Phnom Penh on September 16, 2022. (Hean Rangsey/VOD)

Terminated workers at the NagaWorld casino and represented by the union have said they are facing financial hardships as part of the prolonged labor action against the casino corporation.

The union’s registration has yet to be renewed by the Labor Ministry after elections last year for senior leadership because the ministry says the elected leaders, like Sithar, Sokhorn and Soben, are no longer employees of the casino. Soben said the union’s official bank account with Acleda bank had been frozen because the union’s registration was not renewed.

Separately, to raise funds for workers, Nop Tithboravy, a union member, started a $1 campaign encouraging donations to her personal Acleda bank account to support workers who were holding out against NagaWorld.

Last August, supporters of the union in Australia tried to transfer around $1,000 to her Acleda account but were unable to send the money. Tithboravy decided to ask Acleda why the transfers were blocked.

“The [senders] recommended I ask the bank and I went to ask them. But the banker said nothing was wrong with the back account. It was still running as normal,” Tithboravy said.

Unlike her colleagues, the bank staff did not ask about her union affiliation or why the money was being transferred. She was left confused because she had previously received transfers from overseas and continues to get domestic donations.

She also rued the lost opportunity to get support for workers.

“When people tried to send the money to support us again and again they couldn’t send it. So they also felt less interest to keep supporting us,” she said.

In Channy, the president of Acleda, asked the NagaWorld workers to contact bank staff because he cannot discuss these issues publicly.

“She should come to meet,” he said. “For these kinds of cases, we can’t put [the information] in public. She should come and they will explain it to her.”

ABA touts itself as one of the top three commercial banks in the country and has 2.1 million customers. The bank is also popular for the omnipresence of its branded QR codes that have become synonymous for bank transfers. ABA was also among a number of banks that last year blocked transfer attempts out of Cambodia to support the fighting in Ukraine.

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