Union leader Chhim Sithar said she might have compromised too much in a letter made public this week asking workers to stop protesting to resume negotiations, which had been met with “disappointment” by union members.
Sithar spoke to VOD on Wednesday, talking about the challenge to convince workers about her push for a negotiated settlement to the long-running strike, the formation of a new “instant noodle” union at NagaWorld, and the government’s decision to insert itself in the labor dispute.
Sithar and seven other jailed unionists signed letters over the weekend asking the Ministry of Labor for bail, and also asked their colleagues to suspend the strike in favor of negotiations. The eight unionists were released on Monday but three other workers — arrested separately over Covid-19 violations — were yet to be released as of publication.
The government on Tuesday announced a negotiation meeting to be held Wednesday, but Sithar said the union had decided to not attend because the three remaining workers, who are being held in Phnom Penh’s PJ Prison, had not been released.
Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to requests for comment about whether the meeting went ahead, and earlier in the day referred a reporter to a Fresh News story about the 2 p.m. meeting. Labor dispute department director Chroeun Theravong could not be reached on Wednesday.
Workers, over the past two days, have continued their attempt to resume demonstrations outside the NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh, only to be met with increased resistance from authorities and police. Each attempt to resume the strike has resulted in workers being carted off in public buses to a Prek Pnov quarantine facility, with this process repeating itself day after day.
Asked if there was rift or conflict in the union, Sithar admitted some workers were disappointed by her request to suspend the strike and that she had tried hard to explain the reasons behind the call but was leaving it to the workers to decide their own activities.
“We are just trying our best to find a way out and to make the negotiations happen by compromising a lot in the letter as you can see,” Sithar said.
“Now they don’t feel upset anymore, but they instruct us to do our jobs to only represent them at the negotiating table,” she said, referring to her colleagues.
Holding back tears, Sithar said she had likely compromised too much but was also in the dark about happenings outside prison.
“It is too much compromise. It is already too much compromise,” she said. “I didn’t understand the feelings of the members who were feeling disappointed because during these two months I did not know and could not hear about their bad mistreatment by the authorities.”
Workers have shared videos of Sok Narith, a former union leader who was also released on Monday, as he tries to convince workers about the group’s decision to attempt negotiations.
Phat Channa, one of the workers detained on Tuesday, said the protesters refused Narith and told him that it seemed like someone was behind him forcing him to talk to them.
“What he is doing is from someone’s order. I do not believe that he wants to do this to us,” Channa said.
Channa added that 198 workers had gone to NagaWorld casino on Wednesday and were now back at the Prek Pnov facility.
Asked how the controversial letter was drafted, Sithar explained that the eight jailed unionists had been allowed to meet, and drafted an initial letter asking for release and negotiations. But they were then told to add the contentious clause calling for a suspension of the strike, she said. She did not know who had sent that condition from outside prison.
She said the released union representatives would continue to demand reinstatement for workers who wanted to go back to NagaWorld, and fair compensation for those who wanted to leave. She said the company could swap in fired workers as active employees quit.
She would personally never accept compensation and wanted to be reinstated, but if she couldn’t return then the union members would have a choice to make.
“I think the workers have the right to elect the leader who they want to be their leader,” Sithar said, adding that new leadership would have to be selected in April 2022 when the current mandate ends.
This week, the casino floor has also witnessed the introduction of a newly registered union, according to a Labor Ministry certificate. But Sithar said the new union was “instant noodle”-like and a fake organization.
“This is so fast. I can say it is the Cambodian record for union registration process,” she said. “Just add some hot water and it is ready for eating.”
Reflecting on the three months of protests, Sithar said she was confused about the government’s decision to insert itself in the dispute, rather than just facilitate a resolution between LRSU and NagaWorld.
“They only speak on behalf of the company,” she said. “Even at the Ministry of Labor, they all speak on behalf of the company.”
The union leader also took umbrage with accusations of the union accepting foreign funds to start an “illegal demonstration” or attempting a so-called color revolution, and for authorities “hacking” into union meetings and her private messages to use that as evidence of nefarious activities. She said all of this was presented as evidence during her questioning at court.
“They go into my personal chat and they cut one message like I have intention to destroy NagaWorld. Why will I demand to go back to work but I want to destroy this company?”