With Steady Routine, Naga Strikers Keep Going in Clamped Labor Climate

Unionists visit striking NagaWorld workers in Phnom Penh on January 7, 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
Unionists visit striking NagaWorld workers in Phnom Penh on January 7, 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)

Even with top union leadership imprisoned on incitement charges, the NagaWorld labor strikers who continued their protest this week have shown no signs of backing down.

Part of that comes down to basic scheduling: For many now attending the strikes, consistent timing has been key to maintaining support.

On Thursday, orange-vested volunteers from the Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) maintained a tightly controlled perimeter around the strikers. When onlookers got too close or tried to enter their ranks, the guards waved them off or asked them to present their credentials for approaching the unionists.

Reang Mommarynetah was one of these volunteers. She told VOD she’s worked as a dealer for 10 years, and that even after the Tuesday arrest of union president Chhim Sithar, the strikers are maintaining their action along the same procedures as they had before. Those regular details have helped keep momentum without top leadership, Mommarynetah said, as the group has simply fixed the time and place where they can meet.

As far as she was concerned, the unionists had no option but to continue protesting until NagaWorld met their demands.

“We will not stop until we succeed,” she said. “Yes, our physical activity is tiring, but we still have the courage to come.”

Khen Malis, another striker who kept her job through the mass layoff of more than 1,300 other workers, said on Thursday she was disappointed that the group has been shifted away from the Australian Embassy. Still, as long as the timing of the action remains fixed on a 2 p.m. start, Malis said she’ll continue to find the group.

“No matter what the police do to try to stop me, I still can keep striking at the place. This is my passion and no one tells me to do it,” she said. “The time has already been set, so we need to come volunteer.”

The formation of strikers on Friday followed a similar organization, with orange-vested volunteers manning their usual positions. But the last afternoon of the working week stood out due to a host of visitors met with very different reactions from the strikers.

The more enthusiastic response was given to a group of prominent unionists who declared their intent to “spiritually participate to support” the strike and call for the release of Sithar and other imprisoned LRSU leaders.

Those visitors included Yang Sophorn, president of garment worker union CATU; Tim Malai, who leads a civil servants union; Ou Tepphallin, a service worker unionist; Sou Chhlonh, the deputy president of construction workers union BWTUC; and Rong Chhun, the longtime and outspoken labor leader who used to head a teachers union.

Though each made their own remarks, most had a common theme of solidarity and shared challenges facing organized labor in Cambodia. The visiting unionists said they empathized with the imprisoned LRSU members, stating that courts have used such tactics to suppress labor in other cases. The comments resonated with the NagaWorld union members, who greeted the visitors enthusiastically, responding to their words with shouts of agreement.

Tepphallin raised her fist to loud cheers from striking NagaWorld workers as she declared workers will not tolerate the use of Covid-19 as an occasion to fire union representatives, who have then faced imprisonment.

“This is inhuman and immoral on behalf of human beings,” Tepphallin said. “The issue is getting bigger and bigger and using the court system procedure to arrest us means that they use excessive power against innocent workers.”

She said this isn’t the first time authorities have used legal tactics against organized labor, and while she rejected accusations from officials that strikers had shadowy political purposes, she said workers could not stand by and watch attacks against labor.

“We protect the union, it is not a crime to protect our rights at the workplace, it is not a crime. Our dispute is in labor and has nothing to do with a color revolution,” Tepphallin said.

The senior union leader enthusiastically spoke about the rights of the workers and for the government to release nine jailed NagaWorld union members arrested in the last seven days.

Strike participants clapped and shook water bottles with gravel in agreement, chanting “it is true.”

Rights observers outside of the unions themselves have reached similar conclusions about the Cambodian labor environment.

Patrick Lee, the legal consultant with labor rights group Central, said that even maintaining the basic operations of organized labor groups in Cambodia can be an uphill battle under the existing legal framework. Adding strikes or similar actions to the equation only makes those challenges greater, he explained.

“This is something the ILO has also noticed and criticised Cambodia for — the consistent rulings that strikes are illegal no matter how closely workers have followed the procedures provided for under the Labour Law after employers apply to courts for injunctions,” Lee said.

On Friday, the ILO issued a statement that it had written directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen urging him to release all the detained workers and drop any charges related to their union activities. In its statement, the ILO described the LRSU strikes as peaceful union activity, calling the arrests of unionists a “serious interference with civil liberties in general.”

Unions may be able to exist, but according to Lee, it’s unclear how much more they can actually do. From what he saw, Lee believes the LRSU “clearly followed all the necessary procedures” to mitigate their situation with company management before declaring a strike, but ultimately that made no difference as soon as NagaWorld contested the action.

“In these circumstances it almost seems like the government is perhaps willing to tolerate independent unions, provided they don’t rock the boat too much,” he said.

Strikers’ Agenda

Since Thursday, police have cordoned workers off near the towering Bridge building on National Assembly Road, using barricades and roadblocks to gradually push the strike away from the NagaWorld complexes in central Phnom Penh.

The strikers remained at that site on Friday, which completed three weeks since the action started on December 18. The mood was more jubilant Friday afternoon, as the union leaders spoke to the media reiterating the workers’ demand to release nine jailed LRSU members.

An hour after the strike resumed, three Ministry of Labor minivans reached the site, where officials set up a loudspeaker to read out a statement urging workers to end their protest and resume negotiations to finish the dispute. But the statement only addressed termination packages and didn’t speak to most of the strikers’ demands, which now include the release of their imprisoned fellow workers in addition to the original goal of reinstating laid-off employees.

Striking workers immediately turned their backs on the Labor Ministry officials, who repeated their statement before packing up and leaving.

Such appeals hold little weight for Lee. The legal consultant said the ministry has not shown any intent of facilitating negotiation of reinstatement, while its decision to allow the dismissal of union leaders and shop stewards had undermined legal protections granted to them by the Law on Trade Unions.

“The line being run that LRSU have not participated in negotiations to resolve the dispute is simply laughable,” he said. “The union has spent the better part of the last 8 months trying to negotiate, including whilst the strike has been underway. Our lawyers have been there representing workers alongside LRSU leaders, so the attempts to claim they haven’t been trying to negotiate are totally ridiculous. It is NagaWorld who have consistently failed to negotiate in any sort of good faith, refusing to change their position at all on reinstatement, likely because they know they have the backing of the Ministry.”

NagaCorp has either not responded to repeated requests for comment or declined to speak over the past three weeks.

If the dispute seemed intractable before, the arrests of Sithar and other leaders have added another major dimension to the conflict — as well a top item to the strikers’ agenda.

Sophorn, the president of the garment worker union, said the first priority now for all parties should be securing the release of the imprisoned unionists. 

“We come here to spiritually participate to support each other because the NagaWorld strike was legitimate,” she said. “Release the union leaders first, then there will be negotiation after – and we welcome the negotiation.”

After the impromptu press conference, Tepphallin and Sophorn held hands and walked along the strike to the loud cheers of onlookers. 

Workers ended the strike at 5 p.m., a little earlier than usual.

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