Heng Bora, a team leader for the ground crew at Siem Reap Airport, said he’s been waiting for almost two years for a call from his boss.
At the time of his suspension in 2020, Bora’s boss said they would call him when the pandemic was over. Flights are now restarting from Siem Reap, but Bora hasn’t received a call.
“The company fired us when we didn’t make any mistake,” said Bora, a member of the Cambodia Transportation Workers Federation. Some 130 workers were laid off, he said. “They used the pretext of Covid-19, and said that after the end of Covid-19 the company would get us back to work.”
Even as tourists book new flights and hotels in Cambodia post-pandemic, hospitality sector unionists are struggling to regain their positions or demand their rights to collective bargaining, with several union leaders drawing parallels to the mass layoffs at NagaWorld casino complex.
Cambodia’s tourism sector is in the process of recovering — back to 1.26 million arrivals in the first nine months of the year, but well below 4.81 million international arrivals in the first nine months of 2019.
Siem Reap has been particularly hard hit, as tourism was already slumping pre-pandemic, and Angkor Wat ticket sales have failed to climb this year even as international arrivals trended upward. Chinese travelers are still largely missing.
As the Siem Reap Airport struggled through Covid-19, workers were also denied their rights under the Labor Law, said Soeun Sorphoan, a union leader at HCC Angkor, the company that provides cleaning services for the airport.
Sorphoan said she and 116 other workers have been suspended since March 2020. They were initially told they would only be without work for three months, she said, adding they did not receive any Covid-19 relief payments from HCC as urged by the government.
“Why is the owner so dispassionate to us, who have worked for more than 10 years?” she asked. “I felt very disappointed.”
Union members submitted a request to the Labor Ministry for a negotiation with HCC in May this year, as flights resumed a more regular schedule, and the ministry’s inspection team met with a union representative in July, she said. They later met with the ministry and a company representative, but HCC simply said they couldn’t pay workers.
“We had worked for more than 10 years each and they replied [they can’t pay] because of the Covid-19 crisis,” she said. “They keep raising the Covid-19 crisis. … I think this is their excuse. We are inferior to beggars. Beggars can earn 10,000 to 20,000 riel a day but for us, we submitted a request for negotiation with the company, but the company keeps denying us.”
Sorphoan claimed the airport has hired a handful of new workers to clean it through subcontractors, but union leaders have been unable to secure those jobs. HCC did not reply to an emailed request for comment.
“The company seems not to be scared,” Sorphoan said. “They have the money; they can do whatever they want.”
Cambodia Tourism Workers’ Union Federation president Touch Kosal saw Covid-19 as a common excuse for companies to cut back on the number of workers they hire, particularly unionized workers.
In the hotel sector, Kosal said he’d seen larger, international brands exploit workers: In addition to the ongoing dispute over mass firings at NagaWorld, an independent union had been suppressed at the Hong Kong-based hotel chain Rosewood.
“Now, we are seeing the international-level hotels violate work conditions and labor rights, so what about the smaller local hotels and those without unions? How many labor violations will there be?” he said.
According to Kosal, 12 Rosewood employees had support from 100 workers to establish a union, but one of the organizers resigned after they submitted their application to the Labor Ministry in early 2021.
Human Rights Watch alleged in a November report that the company had compelled the worker to resign from the team of union organizers.
Kosal said the union still met the legal requirements for registering a union of having at least 10 members who are actively employed by the company. But the Labor Ministry rejected the application over the resignation, and questioned why the union provided a list of only 12 names when claiming 100 others would join the union.
“I asked [workers] to vote again but they didn’t … as I heard they were afraid of being stopped from work,” Kosal said, adding that organizers either changed jobs or received higher positions in the company.
Rosewood’s managing director Daniel Simon did not reply to a request for comment. The Labor Ministry has not responded to a series of questions this week.
Kosal said the issue was widespread, and likened the difficulties to the removal of union leaders at NagaWorld.
Bora, the unionist and airport worker, also saw parallels between his layoff and that of NagaWorld workers. He said he was disappointed to see a company fire workers in a way that violates the Labor Law, and the Labor Ministry fails to respond.
“If they allow one company to act like this, other companies will follow,” he said. “It is a bad example for other foreign companies who come to do business in our country.”
Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen