This special Workers of the World report from The Real News takes an inside look at the evolving labor struggle of workers at NagaWorld. Owned by Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong, NagaWorld is Cambodia’s largest hotel and casino. Like many other employers, NagaWorld has tried to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to roll back years of labor organizing. NagaWorld workers’ union, the LRSU, voted to strike last year after management announced mass layoffs of 1300 workers, as well as cuts to wages and benefits—despite posting over $100 million in profits. LRSU organizers have faced intense repression for their bravery, from brutality on the picket line to draconian surveillance in jail.
As a special correspondent for The Real News, Kooper Caraway speaks with Chhim Sithar, president of the LRSU, and Ou Tep Phallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, to learn more about the NagaWorld struggle, women’s leadership in the Cambodian labor movement, and the internationalism that is so vital to build power for the global working class.
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Kooper Caraway: Cambodia is hot. Most Americans’ knowledge of Cambodia is limited to Pol Pot and the Dead Kennedys. But what all Americans should know is that Cambodia is rapidly becoming the front line in the fight against global capitalism and patriarchy. And the fiercest fighters on that frontline are the LRSU, the union representing workers at the behemoth Malaysian billionaire owned hotel and casino known as NagaWorld. This is Sithar, LRSU president, and likely the pound for pound most important militant trade unionist on the planet. Sithar was a rank and file worker for a year before getting involved in the LRSU.
Chhim Sithar: To be more active in the union, at first I started as a union dues collector. So people trust me. Because when they fire all the union leaders, they stop collecting union dues for the union too. So it is really important for the union to continue their work if the workers are still paying dues to the union. So when the company stops collecting union dues for us, then we have to do it by ourselves. And I’m the one who has the unions collect their union dues for the union, and joins all the meetings and activity with the unions, until I was noticed by the workers that I have been active in the union. Then in 2012, I was elected as a vice president for my first mandate, and then president up until now.
Kooper Caraway: After Sithar was elected president in 2012, everything changed.
Chhim Sithar: When I became the president, in the leadership of the union, we started to re-strategize and reactivate our unionisms in the company by negotiating with the company about a living wage and about working conditions, and especially the protection of women workers from harassment and violence from customers, we’ve been very active and really committed to fighting for those benefits and protections to our workers at the workplace. So in 2013, I led the first strike for 13 days, demanding a living wage. And we won the strike. The workers from the casino department got a wage increase from $120 to $200, which is around 80%. And then the workers from the hotel got their wage increased from $90 to $150. And this is a very big amount and a very big victory for us. And since then, the union has become very famous and people, the workers started to join the union, more and more came to join the union.
And in 2019, we had 4,000 out of 8,000 of workers join the union. And again, in 2019, we started another living wage campaign after the company made a lot of profit in 2019. And the campaign led to the strike in early 2020. And we won the strike again. So after we won the second strike in 2020, then the pandemic happened. The company again put the worker safety behind their profit by rejecting our request to suspend the business when we found there was an infected COVID-19 case with customers and workers. And the union has played a very important role to protect workers to make sure that they’re safe at work. Because at the time when the first wave of COVID-19 hit in Cambodia and the world, we didn’t have the vaccine yet. And we found a lot of underlying health conditions with workers in NagaWorld that can be at very high risk if they are affected by COVID-19.
So we demanded the company to suspend the business, to test the workers, and to disinfect the entire workplace before they continue. But sadly, the company refused our demands, and the workers had no choice but to boycott going to work for one week. Then the company agreed to suspend the business. But after that, it looks like the company was trying to take revenge on the union by announcing the mass layoff plan with 1329 workers to be laid off. But 1100 are union leaders and members, in the list of the layoff. So we could see very clearly that this company is trying to get rid of the union again.
Kooper Caraway: During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many employers in Cambodia and around the world, NagaWorld used the pandemic as an excuse to roll back worker rights and attempt to bust the union.
Chhim Sithar: During the pandemic, the worker, the union, discussed with the worker and then we agreed with the company to use working hours. So we worked only 50% of working hours, the rest we took unpaid leave at home. So this idea brought by the union is to avoid the layoff, because we don’t want any workers to be laid off during the pandemic. So it’s been more than a year that we’ve been practicing like that, reducing working hours to all workers. And other benefits being cut also, like the bonus and then the incentive and other incentives that we used to get, normally get every year, all being cut. And we just agreed with the company so that everybody could survive [inaudible] we want to use… The company expanded also during the pandemic, so as to keep workers’ jobs. But in the result in 2020, the company made 102 million in net profits, even though there was a pandemic. But they still are announcing and laying off the 1300 workers, which include 1100 leaders and union members.
Kooper Caraway: Okay. What happened after that?
Chhim Sithar: So after they announced the mass layoff, the union tried to negotiate and find any other options with the company by not… I mean, the mass layoff, that the company laid off the workers during the pandemic is a very bad choice, while we have a lot of other choices, not lay off the worker. But the company still refused to accept our request. And we still continue to file complaints to the Ministry of Labour here in Cambodia and use all the dispute resolutions procedure and all steps to find a solution. But in eight months, there’s no solution to stop the company from continuing the layoff plan, which is targeting our union leaders and members. Then the workers have no choice but to vote for the strike. And they started the strike on December 18, up until now.
Kooper Caraway: After 1300 workers were laid off in December of 2021, the union called another strike. But this time, 11 of their leaders including Sithar were violently arrested and imprisoned.
Chhim Sithar: 11 of our activists and elected leaders were arrested and detained. And then a few days later I was arrested, on January 4, and was detained also for nine weeks in prison. And even though all the elected leaders and activists, the key activists were detained in the prison, but the workers were still continuing to strike. And the number is quite strong, that the workers were still continuing to strike. But sadly, eventually the strike was crushed down by the government using COVID as an excuse to break down the strike, because there’s a COVID law here in Cambodia that stopped the workers or the people from gathering. So eventually they used the COVID law to stop the strike and forced our members to quarantine for like two weeks. And some of our members are also being charged with the COVID law, because they disobey or go against the COVID safety guideline, kind of that abuse.
And then three other members are being detained also for about five weeks. But I was arrested on January 4, 2022. And the way that I was arrested was so aggressive and it was horrible. Around ten big men just ran over me and grabbed me like they were grabbing some things, not a human. And then pulled me over, put me in the car. And they brought me to the detention center at the police station for one night. And then immediately they brought me to the court for the questions until late evening. And then tomorrow send me back to question again until evening. Then they sent me to the prison. So in the prison for the first three weeks, we could meet anyone, even the family and the lawyer, because they used a COVID law as an excuse for the quarantine, three weeks in the prison.
So we lived in very crowded rooms, not enough water. Sometimes we have to wait until like 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM in the morning so that we can have a shower. And then we have to buy or to cook to… We had to buy food from other prisoners. Otherwise we cannot accept or take it at all, the food provided by the center, by the prison–it’s horrible food. And very, very limited access to possibility – I mean, things that we have to use daily, like the shower, shampoo, blankets, or pillows, or mattresses, there’s almost nothing there. We have to sleep, really, on the floor. But we have to spend like three or four times more than normal price if we want to have those kinds of things to use in the prisons. And then after the quarantine of three week, we were put in the cell with other prisoners.
So my room had 76 prisoners in the room, and some other colleagues were put in like 150 prisoners in the cell. And it’s very crowded. We have a very small space for sleep and not enough water, the same to use like other prisoners. So it’s been very horrible inside of the prison. And we were surveilled by the guard also, by the security guard also who we talk to, even though when we meet with family, when we are allowed to meet family, there is always a security guard to stay there and write down and record on whatever we talk about with the family. And they don’t allow us to talk about work, especially about the strike. The family cannot tell us anything about what is happening outside with the strike, but they just can come and ask me, ‘How are you?’ That’s the only question that we can ask and we talk about.
Kooper Caraway: Today, the government is not even using the COVID law as a basis for their attacks on the workers. Instead, strikers are rounded up, thrown on buses as soon as they show up, and shipped 20 miles outside of the city, and forced to find their way back.
Chhim Sithar: The current state of the strike, even though there’s no more use of COVID law, which requires our members to quarantine in the dirty, no food and no water quarantine center, but the workers almost cannot strike at all because the government just baselessly… I mean, before, at least they used the COVID law to stop workers from striking, but now they don’t even base it on any law to stop the workers from striking. But they just every day push the workers onto the bus, which is provided by the government and China, a bus provided by the government, and drive them to the outskirts of the city, far from the city. And then will drop them back somewhere every day in the evening when there’s no more crowds. So the workers have to find their own transportation to come back home every day. And we can never get near to strike in front of NagaWorld.
Kooper Caraway: This is Phallin, president of the Cambodian food and service worker Federation, of which the LRSU is an affiliate. Phallin says that the fact that the labor movement in Cambodia is woman-led is critical.
Ou Tep Phallin: If the women lead the union, corruption is less. This is my experience. And second, the women have the feeling as a mother. Like you see the members when they are suffering with the economy, with their family, I feel like we are as the mother to support them, to talk to them. And they feel confident to talk with the women, more than the men. And the third is about, I saw the experience that when the male organizer, they also take opportunity with the victims, with the women, by sometimes love me and sleep with the women members. That is just like, you don’t have a good heart to support the workers while they are living in bad conditions. So this is what I saw and I learned. And four, women have a strong spirit. It is about like, we learn from Naga. Mostly the men already changed positions because of the money.
But the women still struggle even though they have the family responsibilities, but they never, and not yet change the position because of the money. They all struggle the same as the men, but they still continue fighting, not giving up. And what I learned from history, another history, I learned that the women are still living in inequality. So women keep fighting until now in our society, in the modern country, but women are still fighting for gender equality. We are still talking about that issue in the labor movement, in society, in the community, and also the violence in the family. So this is a very big challenge for the women. They struggle in their daily life. So I feel that women must be involved in the union movement, less corruption, and support for other workers. If the union has no corruption, I believe that we can build trust with the worker, and support more labor movements stronger and stronger, because if there’s no corruption, workers can join and trust [the union].
Kooper Caraway: One constant theme from both of these union leaders is the need for workers around the world to unite.
Ou Tep Phallin: It’s really important because it’s about union. When they hurt someone, it means hurting people around the world. This is the definition of union. That’s why we are organizing. It’s not about, ‘These are Cambodian people, we should not be involved.’ So why do we need to organize as the working class? It means the working class everywhere around the world. If they hurt one, it means hurting everyone in the world. Like the women workers from Naga, they keep getting harassed from the local authority, from the government, and the government already proved that they are protecting the employer, not protecting the workers. And they are not easy to fight. I can say, [inaudible] business, it’s not easy. You must stand with them and support them as much as we can. And then another thing, the leader is not afraid to stay in jail. And we know that when we fight with that employer, it must be a challenge.
We must go to jail. We must have another accident made up. We don’t know what happened. Because I believe what they do, it makes the workers in Cambodia afraid to fight, to strike against the employer. I can say it’s not about a Naga with the employer. It’s about wanting to prove to another worker in Cambodia that if you are fighting, if you are going to strike, this is the result. You see, this is the Naga result. So we want to give hope to workers in our country, organizing, you can win. But if we try to fight and we don’t win, what hope is there for the new generation? What we can tell them is that you must be organized and challenge the employer to change the working conditions, to increase wages. But when the result is we fail, how can we tell other people or workers, ‘Organize, and fight, and [you’ll] win’?
And the third point, as they are women workers, they struggle every day. They get harassed and are fought and are hit with harassment violations from the local authority, but they do not give up. They keep fighting. So all of you must not stay silent. Keep fighting with them, keep speaking up, and keep supporting them as you are the union. As I say, if they hurt one, they hurt all. So we must stand with them and support them.
Kooper Caraway: American workers should relate to the story of greedy casino bosses using the pandemic as an excuse to roll back worker rights and bust the unions. It’s right out of a playbook being used in the United States and around the world. In these uncertain and confusing times, one thing is clear: The capitalists and anti-worker governments around the world are united. Their greed and exploitation can flow effortlessly across all borders. The only remedy is for working people around the world to be just as united, and to let our solidarity flow just as effortlessly across all borders. Cambodia is hot, and it’s about to get hotter.