The Longest Strike in Cambodia: How NagaWorld Workers Fight for Livelihood, Dignity and Union Rights (Part 2)

The striking workers, having held out for so long against employer and government attacks, need international support and labor solidarity as urgently as ever.

Read Part 1 of the interview

ALR: The workforce is overwhelmingly female workforce. You just talked about the power of the fathers and husbands over the wives, over the daughters. Do you experience a lot of sexism at work and in this fight?

Phalin: Yes, in the gambling place, the customers don’t have the morality and respect for women workers. When they lose money, they abuse and look down upon women workers. That’s why the union inside the entertainment industry is really important. If the union leaders and union committee members are women, it is easy for us to understand the situation, and we have a space to talk and discuss with each other. If we only have only male union leaders, it is hard for the women members to talk about sexual harassment and their feeling. I can say, it is not about discrimination, it is about safe space and comfortable discussion.

ALR: I’m sure there’s a lot of harassment in the casino. The issue of respect and dignity is very important. What has the union tried to do to protect workers from harassment at work?

Sithar: Yes, it has been very tough. It is important to encourage workers to speak up. For years, they have been told that this is part of their job, that it is okay to be harassed, and nothing we can do, because they are customer. This is what management tells them. This has been very challenging for us to tell and explain to workers that they have to speak up, it is unacceptable.

When workers are willing to speak up, then another challenge is to talk to the company, to demand them to take real actions against violence and harassment against workers. Mostly, with some small gamblers, they play with small money, the company is willing to take faster actions. But for high rollers customers, we have to fight like hell to banning the customer or suspending them for one or two weeks.

I still remember once I was really pissed off, I had to challenge them. One of the customers, he was a normal customer, I was handling two tables, and the two tables were full of customers, so I was busy at one of the tables. And then one of my dealers suddenly cried, and I turned back, I heard her, and I asked her what happened. She told me that one of the customers just showed her one chip of $25 and just doing (a sexually vulgar) sign to her. He sleeps upstairs in the hotel in NagaWorld and asked her to sleep with him for $25.

So I asked the customer, to stop doing this and say sorry, and I demanded the company to suspend this customer. They refused. The management tried to convince me that because he is customer we cannot ask him say sorry to the worker. I asked why, unless we are not human. Customers are human, we are human as well. So if they cannot say sorry, why? They keep on delaying on settling this harassment issue, case, and this customer continued to play like nothing happened.

That really set a bad example. He did that to my dealer at the peak hour where there were a lot of customers and everyone saw that. This is going to set a bad example to other customers that he treats the dealer like that and nothing happens to him. So I decided to leave the meeting rooms and I came back and told the customer off.

ALR: So even such a small thing, it should be a straight forward issue, management refused to do anything about it, until you escalated and took action. Is there still a lot of fear for workers to raise issue, do they fear there will be consequences?

Sithar: There is always worry about being targeted by management, being treated as disobedient workers, missing the chance of promotion, that kind of stupid consequences. It has always been challenging for us. For years, we tried to push the company to set up guidelines and policies against violence and harassment from the customers. But the company had no willingness to do that.

ALR: What has been the public reaction to the strike actions? Do you think they are aware of what’s happening, or is the media so controlled that people simply don’t know?

Phalin: Because we don’t have independent media, and it’s not easy for the public to completely understand our case. Only some people, some young people, are really interested and keep following the case. Even as I talk to the international NGOs, they are also confused about the case. That’s why I say, let me sit down and consider that even for people working on human rights, they are still unclear about the case. For the public who only have access to social media and watching their TV, they are confused that NagaWorld has a lot of money, why they do not compensate to the workers.

I try to explain to them that this is not about compensation, not about money. They are speaking out and protecting their union in the workplace. If they don’t care about the union representatives at the workplace, they maybe just go to the ATM and take the compensation that the company already transferred to their bank. And the company keeps counts and tracks who are taking the company compensation. Also, the government and employers are like the husband and wife, they share the profit. That’s why we need to challenge the unjust system, and the power relationship between the government and the employers.

Sithar: We have heard from our members that lots of people from residential blocks and small villages and outskirts of the city are speaking about our case. We get a lot of attention from the public, but the problem with the public in Cambodia is that they know this is unfair and that we are fighting very hard and that we are brave and mostly women, they supporting us, and they are proud of us. But Cambodian people are not brave enough to speak on behalf of workers. But they are aware. That’s why our union fight will become a model for other workers. If we win the case, it would give a lot of voice and model to other workers to stand up and fight for their rights.

ALR: The NagaWorld case has attracted a lot of global attention. A lot of global unions and labour organisations have taken an interest in the case. What do you see as useful international pressure? A lot of organisations have issued statements and letters. Are they useful?

Sithar: In Cambodia, not all labour disputes catch a lot of attention from the international community. We are really proud and appreciate the kind of support even though there is no solution yet. But this is what we can show to our members that when we really fighting and stand up for our fights there will be support from workers around the world.

I still believe from that solidarity from workers around the world, from the global unions and all the people, we will win the case one days. We are not going to make people disappointed. So we are never giving up, and we will continue to fight until we win. This is why the support is coming, they are confident that we are going fight this until we win.

ALR: How much do you think the Cambodian government cares about international pressure?

Phalin: I think for the international pressure on NagaWorld, you have to be focused and keep sending the letters to the Prime Minister, even if it is to just prove that the Cambodian government doesn’t care. The government tries to show that they are not living under any pressure from the international community. But in reality, the Prime Minister needs international support, for legitimacy, for his position and also for his reputation in the international community.

So for the international community, what I suggest is keep sending letters, even if you have sent it before, keep sending. Keep throwing the stones at his head, give them pressure from the international community. Show they are following the case very closely. Not just only one time. Even if they don’t respond, send again. Don’t feel like you have no power.

ALR: They always pretend they don’t care.

Sithar: It is just their political strategy to say they don’t care. Some of our members, especially those who give up and decide to take the severance package, they are being told that no matter how we fight, they are not going to win, especially me. They don’t want me to go back the company. And we said, yeah we knew this a long time ago. No employer in the world will say they will support the union leader and that they never ever want to fire the union leader. But it’s not about they don’t want to reinstate me or any other leader. It’s about this is the freedom of the union and it’s about worker rights, they have to respect it.

There’s some pressure that they are feeling, such as threats about trade preferential agreements like the GSP (the United States’ Generalized System of Preferences in the US), and the EBA (European Union’s Everything But Arms). There will be another source of pressure after the recommendations from the ILO. We know that the ILO recommendations are not binding but it is something that is very shameful for the government. So, we want to submit this petition just before the recommendations, so that if they want to settle this, then they can use this petition to say that it was workers who asked for my intervention, not because of the international pressure. They feel the pressure. But as you see, we all know that dictatorship never willfully surrenders.

We are trying to find a way to give them face. Even the company. We are not saying that they are illegally laying off worker. We don’t want to say that anymore, but now we want to keep the head count of the layoffs. We support and agree that you are affected from the Covid-19 crisis, you need to layoff, we agree. Now just lay off workers who agree to be laid off. For workers who disagree with the layoff, reinstate them.

ALR: So winning for you is until everyone who wants to be reinstated is reinstated.

Sithar: Yes

ALR: This is really impressive how much energy you put into this fight and it’s been so long. Normally, a strike like this doesn’t last for this long.

Sithar: I think we are the longest strike in Cambodia after the Raffles hotel strike in 2003 where they had a six month strike.

ALR: This speaks to how important the NagaWorld case is. Many people see that if the management or government gets its way, they will feel more confident to attack unions more. Do you think this is likely to happen? If they win this case, it will make it easier for them to attack other workers and unions?

Sithar: Yes, that’s true. We can already see the new methods of union-busting. When employers state that they are going through a crisis like covid-19, that affects their income and they have to lay off worker, they don’t care about the worker representatives. This is being supported by the Ministry of Labor. And all the labour dispute resolution mechanisms cannot give the worker justice to protect that union at work. We can see a new model of union-busting already in Cambodia.

I want to stop the myth that we cannot fight with casino employer. Does it mean for workers in the casino industry, there’s no human rights or freedom for them? I agree workers have to be very strong, militant and united to fight, but we need support from other workers to support this case until we win. So stop telling us there’s no pressure for casino, stop telling us that we cannot fight against casino employers.

ALR: So it means they can fire workers, they can do whatever they want without caring about the union.

Sithar: In the future, the employers don’t need to even claim that they are affected by the global crisis like Covid. They can just say that they want to restructure the workforce inside the company, and they can pick the department where the union leaders are, dissolve it and just create another job title, and use other job titles to get rid of that union leaders in that department. If layoff happens again, the Ministry of Labor will agree to all the layoffs and doesn’t even mention the special protection for union leaders. Then that’s it, the employers can do all these tricks.

Phalin: If they win this case, it will be hard for us to organize and mobilize others workers because we won’t have any good examples to prove to workers and say, when we have a union, you can protect the rights. Even though some workers checked in and went back to work, they still need the union in their workplace, that’s why they keep coming back to sign the petition, coming back for the union election to support their union. It means that they are back to work, but it doesn’t mean they are not with us.

ALR: A lot of people have been on strike for a long time, financially people are still supporting each other but do you think it is still sustainable, or there’s some financial issues. There’s so much you can ask people to contribute?

Sithar: This is very tough for us right now, after six months of strike. We need a lot of support, any kind of support. Food package, medicine, money for basic needs, and that’s why we have public fundraising for workers, and every union we meet we ask them to donate to workers. Every organization that has any budget to support medicines, food packet or whatever, please support us. This fight is very important, we need money to continue to fight.

Phalin: The problem is the financial burden on workers, that’s why we try to find ways to support then, even small things. At least they have a little bit of money to buy food, so they can keep the struggle and even though our members are back to work, they still financially support our friends, sisters and brothers who are standing outside the company, keeping going and struggling every day. They understand that this is the membership fee that they contribute, to transfer to the union bank to support their friends who really need in this crisis. This is the heart of workers, they are not like going back to work and stop talking about the union.

We need support in terms of international pressure to the government. We also need the financial support at the moment. But right now, we really need not only one-off support, we need continuing support until workers win the case. Not just one-off and then stop. It means you are in solidarity with workers when they are not taking any compensation from the company, it means you keep them staying with the union movement, it means they are continuing even though their family is pressuring them, asking them why they keep doing this with no food, no money to pay for rent and pay off debt, so we need the support from our brothers and sisters at the moment. Really, please continue to support them until we get positive results.

ALR: My last question is the strategy doing forward. I know there’s been many rounds of negotiations but it hasn’t produced a good result for you. What is the strategy next, what do you want to try to see if there could be more pressure on the company and the government to reinstate workers?

Sithar: First is to keep workers who continue the strike to stay on as long as they can, to put the pressure on the company. Second, we have a plan to organize workers inside the casino by calling them one by one, but it’s not easy. Because after going back, they had a one-on-one meeting with management, who threatened them about the union and the consequences of them re-joining the union.

On top of that, they have good cooperation with the Ministry of Labor by rejecting our union elections, and saying that the in the new union is illegal. They are trying to make our workers confused that this union is not legitimate anymore, and joining any activity with them can lead to disciplinary action or pressure. So all kind of this pressure and challenges we have to deal with. Also, we try to follow the working conditions and labor issues inside the workplace in the casino, and we try to mobilize workers.

For the unions in Cambodia, we are creating a group discussion now on how to support this case, and make this become a collective union discrimination case amongst the unions in Cambodia. We are also trying to get support from the union from other countries. On the other hand, we also have the women’s organizations and human rights NGOs voicing concerns about the violence and harassment on our strikers every day.

We are also looking at finding connections with the Naga 3 buildings constructions: banks that may give NagaWorld loans, the investors, and the shareholders. It will be very helpful if our story is published in the Hong Kong media to get attention from the stock exchange, and the shareholder in Hong Kong and a lot of other kinds of strategies.

ALR: Has any Hong Kong media reached out to you?

Sithar: Before I was arrested, there was one in last December and January. One or two journalists from South China Morning Post and others reached out to me, but now it seems quiet. Nikkei in Japan covered our story a lot, but lately they are very silent. And also, now our comrades in Hong Kong, like the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (disbanded under political pressure in 2021), cannot do much since there’s a lot of political pressure in Hong Kong. We need many kinds of strategies, like media strategies, pressure on the company, and pressure on the government.

ALR: Do you think the strike and protest will continue?

Sithar: Yes, there are still protests but we try not to do daily protests, because currently we cannot reach NagaWorld at all. The authorities and the police just block us, and push all the strikers onto the bus and drive them away every day. And every day they are harassed and beaten up by the police. So we are not going to strike every day. We are now, discussing the new strategy to make the strikes more effective.

But the problem is the number of strikers. There are around 400 workers still going on strike, but only half of them are willing to show up and face the harassment and challenges. So that’s a problem. I don’t blame them because some really face family pressure. Some of the members tell us that they will never return to work if the union is not being reinstated, but they cannot join the strike because if they let the family see them joining the strike, they’ll have an issue with the family.

ALR: Now there’s a lot more attention about the case in the last few months, do you think the government will soften or harden its position? Because after the communal election, people are saying because the ruling party feared they may lose power, this is why they went hard on the opposition activists. Do you think they are more likely or less likely to back down or pressure management to accept union demands?

Phalin: It’s hard to predict what they will do. They are telling us “don’t cross the red line”. But we don’t know where the red line is for us. They are the one drawing the red line. We don’t know if we are on the red line, or we are close, or we have passed the red line, maybe we are moving to the dark line.

We keep solidarity among our brothers and sisters, and carrying on our activities. We will re-strategize, keep talking and discussing, and mobilizing again and again. What we tell ourselves is: not to give up.