NagaWorld Union in Midst of Elections, Seeing Low Turnout

4 min read
A NagaWorld union member drops her ballot in a collection box to vote in the organization’s week-long leadership election, April 26, 2022. (Keat Soriththeavy/VOD)

Only about 400 of an estimated 2,000 members of the embattled union at NagaWorld have so far voted five days into a seven-day leadership election, said the group’s current leaders.

The Labor Rights Supported Union of NagaWorld Employees has set up ballot boxes at the NGO Apheda’s office in Phnom Penh, as their union offices are still closed to them following a raid by authorities on New Year’s Eve.

The union has been pushing for a strike since December over mass layoffs it alleges targeted its members and leaders. Near-daily protests have led to the jailings of several strikers and other crackdowns by authorities, who have deemed the strike illegal.

On the ballot for the seven-day union leadership vote, which ends Thursday, are 11 unionists who were sent to prison for incitement or Covid-19 Law violations but were later released on bail. Four others who were charged for Covid-19 violations are also candidates.

However, voters and candidates both said the elections would largely be a show of support for current union president Chhim Sithar, who is running for re-election.

“I support bong Sithar,” said Pich Sokky, a worker who said Tuesday she’d come from Prey Veng to vote. Sokky said she was terminated last year but continues to dispute her layoff, seeking reinstatement.

“It’s important to vote. It’s not only for me, but for the employees in general. When we have [a union], we can have work stability.”

Tables were set up for ballot boxes outside the entrance of the NGO building. A small number of union members stopped at the Norodom Boulevard office to vote.

As of Tuesday, about 400 people had voted, mostly for Sithar, said Sun Sreypich, one of the other union leadership candidates.

The target was getting at least 50 percent turnout, or roughly 1,000 members. The union could extend the election period if it doesn’t hit that threshold.

“If we can’t make it, we will discuss it with the lawyer,” Sreypich said.

Khun Tharo, program officer at the labor rights group Central, said there was no legal requirement to get at least 50 percent turnout — only to have at least 10 votes.

Tharo added that it should be fine for terminated workers who had not yet accepted compensation to participate in the election. 

“Their employment contract is not complete unless they sign and accept compensation. In this case, they are still employees,” he said.

The Trade Unions Law requires unions to submit a statute including procedures for electing leadership through secret ballot.

Central’s labor consultant, Patrick Lee, said if a union violated its internal statutes, the Labor Ministry might reject the renewal of its registration and order another election.

VOD reached out to Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour for comment in the late afternoon but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

Sithar, the union’s current leader, said there was some concern the Labor Ministry would not accept the union’s registration renewal after elections.

“If a candidate has been voted as the next leader but refused by the Labor Ministry and company due to the current problem … it is evidence of discrimination against the union,” Sithar said.

She and the other union leaders are among those selected for termination by NagaCorp, and are seeking reinstatement.

She said not being in the workplace made it difficult to communicate with workers, which they’d often done previously during lunch breaks.

“Maybe people haven’t heard about this, because we [usually] communicate verbally,” Sithar said, adding that some important resources were in their union office, to which they no longer had access.

Kheng Chanda, another union activist and leadership candidate, said plainclothes officers were stationed outside the voting place from the morning to evening, taking photos of the activities there.

“That’s an issue, but it’s not a big deal,” Chanda said. “I know we are facing a lot of problems. Some people have even asked, ‘Why would I still want to join that union?’” 

Despite such challenges, she said it’s important for the members to continue to promote labor rights, adding that the candidates were not campaigning against one another.

Union member Thim Saiya said Tuesday that most active protesters such as herself had yet to vote and planned to go Wednesday afternoon.

They wanted to give space for those who still worked daily at NagaWorld to vote without being associated with protests, Saiya said.

“I don’t want them to see us striking outside. I don’t want them to feel guilty,” she explained. “If they see inside, they might be scared to come vote.”

Another union member, Chan Sreyrath, spoke to a reporter on Tuesday after casting her ballot at the Apheda building.

“I want the old leader again, because she sacrificed a lot for employees. Others might not have wanted to stand again — she went to jail as the leader,” Sreyrath said.

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