The day before her arrest for leading a strike against one of the most profitable gaming companies in the world, Chhim Sithar shaved his hair and had a picture taken of himself with a banner declaring: “I am imprisoned[ed] after claiming Naga Corp. to respect trade union law[s]. “
It was, her family and colleagues said, a typically fearless defiant act for the university-educated 34-year-old labor leader, who was instantly detained by police in civilian clothes when she arrived at the scene of the January 4 strike.
As president of Labor Rights Supported by the Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, Chhim Sithar has spearheaded a massive strike by workers demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of 365 union leaders and members who the group says were wrongfully fired from the hotel. and casino.
Cambodian authorities have considered the strike “illegal” and say it is backed by foreign donors as a plan to overthrow the government. Chhim Sithar, along with seven other colleagues, was charged with incitement to create social unrest.
Labor leaders say the government’s response is in fact about preventing any meaningful labor reforms in the country.
“By arresting our union members, the government is playing with fire,” Chhim Sithar told RFA a day before her arrest.
She said it would “bring further shame” over Cambodia’s global image to deny workers the fundamental rights to organize and fight for themselves.
During the five days from December 31 to January 4, Phnom Penh authorities arrested 29 strikers, union activists and union leaders, including a three-wheeler and several pregnant women, who were allegedly unfairly fired by NagaWorld.
Authorities later released 20 of them after signing agreements not to join the strike again. One of the workers was placed under judicial supervision.
Chhim Sithar has now been detained on charges of incitement in Prey Sar Prison. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riel ($ 974,000). Seven other union members, who are also charged with incitement, have also been remanded in custody.
The union leader previously told RFA she was ready to face persecution for fighting for workers’ rights in Cambodia, which she says has not yet been fully upheld.
Math whiz, labor rights activist
Chhim Sithar was born in the middle class of Prey Veng Province’s Peam Chor district, but grew up in Phnom Penh when her parents moved there to work.
The second child among five siblings, she excelled in mathematics at the famous elite Preah Sisowath High School and studied economic informatics on a scholarship at the Royal University of Law and Economics.
She speaks fluent English and Chinese and is able to communicate well in Thai. She started working at the NagaWorld casino in 2006. A year later, she joined the union.
In an earlier interview with RFA, Chhim Sithar said she was motivated to take on a more active role in the union as she saw its leaders being punished for pushing for better working conditions and higher wages.
For years, it has been Chhim Sithar himself who carries the bulk of the fight. She was suspended by NagaWorld on the night of September 20, 2019, after she pressured management to get an explanation as to why it ordered the company’s security guards to inspect an employee’s bag.
During the bag check, guards confiscated a T-shirt that read, “Decent wages for workers create company growth.” The company accused Chhim Sithar of being behind the T-shirt campaign. She was not reinstated until Cambodia was hit hard by the COVID-19 virus in early 2021, and NagaWorld needed workers.
NagaWorld also sued Chhim Sithar for $ 1.7 million for leading strikes in 2013 to demand concessions from the gaming giant. The trial has not yet been heard by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but in the meantime, Chhim Sithar has filed an appeal against the court’s proceedings to try to turn the collective labor dispute into a personal dispute against her.
“I’m glad to see that she dares to dedicate her work to her colleagues for the sake of workers’ rights,” Chhim Yiek, Chhim Sithar’s older brother, told RFA. “She is loved by her colleagues and team for the fact that she effortlessly speaks for them.”
Chhim Yiek said he supported his sister’s education in Phnom Penh and that she achieved the highest level of education of any member of the family. He said his sister never wanted to get married but instead had devoted herself to her struggle for labor rights until the day she was arrested.
Ou Tephalin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation and a close friend of Chhim Sithar, described the union leader as resolute and willing to risk his personal freedom for the sake of his colleagues. She is not being paid for her union work, Ou Tephalin said.
“Wherever Sithar has gone, she has never forgotten to talk about social issues, even though it could be vacation time where we usually do not want to talk about negative or stressful things,” she said. “Sithar remains candid.”
Examination of the root causes
Ou Tephalin said the Cambodian authorities have sided with the casino management by arresting and detaining the eight union leaders. The goal, she said, is to dissolve the union.
“This is not the first time NagaWorld has fired union leaders,” she said. “The first union leader was fired by the company before, and the company continued its ongoing efforts to prosecute the second union leader, including Miss Chhim Sithar.”
“If we investigate the root causes, it’s about the company itself trying to obliterate managers and their union from the company,” Ou Tephalin said. “The real intention of the employees is to protect the existence of the union in order to represent them in the company.”
NagaWorld casino is a subsidiary of NagaCorp Ltd., a Hong Kong listed company and one of the world’s most profitable gaming equipment. It claims to be the largest gaming entertainment company in the Mekong region.
According to the company’s website, NagaWorld owns, manages and operates Phnom Penh’s only integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex and enjoys a monopoly within a radius of 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the capital until 2045.
A leaked 2017 text message from Chen Lip Keong, NagaCrp’s CEO, revealed for his close business dealings with the wife and children of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the sons of Sok An, the late Deputy Prime Minister. Neither party confirmed or denied the leaked information.
Despite lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company reported generating $ 173 million in profits in the first half of 2020 and $ 74.7 million in the same period in 2021.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.