Authorities Condemned for Using Health Measures to Restrict NagaWorld Strike

Workers from the NagaWorld casino hold placards during a protest outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on January 4, 2022 to demand the reinstatement of colleagues who were laid off last year.

City Hall has restricted the NagaWorld strikers from gathering in public except for at Freedom Park, but rights group condemned the government’s use of public health measures to restrict the union

PHNOM PENH--In the latest attempt to stop the NagaWorld strike, Phnom Penh City Hall issued an order on Feb. 15, banning former and current employees of the gambling giant from protesting in public so as to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Authorities said in their statement that they have been attempting to find a means of resolving the strike since before it began on Dec. 18, 2021—when City Hall dubbed the strike illegal—and is now on its 60th day without resolution.

While 11 union leaders from NagaWorld have been jailed, the strike largely continued unabated, until more recently when authorities began to utilize Cambodia’s controversial COVID-19 law to prosecute strikers after a contested number of positive cases were found among demonstrators.

“During this illegal demonstration, this activity caused serious damage to public order, traffic congestion, as well as disrupting the business and daily work of other people,” Phnom Penh City Hall stated, adding that in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially the Omicron variant, the authorities will not allow the strike to take place in Tonle Bassac Commune, Chamkarmon District, Phnom Penh.

Now, City Hall’s latest restrictions would limit the NagaWorld strike to Freedom Park in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo District, some 8 kilometers north of the casino. This, authorities said, would keep what they called the protest in line with the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations.

“The authorities still tried to find ways and means to prevent and stop the labor union from protesting peacefully rather than finding a solution to end this labor dispute,” said Khun Tharo, program coordinator at labor rights group CENTRAL.

Tharo said that the authorities continue to paint the strike as an illegal protest and added they should focus on finding an effective solution that brings accountability into the situation, rather than seeking more excuses to end the strike.

“The authorities should review the Labor and Employment Law of the Ministry of Interior’s guidelines on the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations,” he said.

The NagaWorld union has previously pointed out that a strike taking place outside a business is treated separately from protests, but Tharo said this is something authorities are ignoring in their request to confine the strike to Freedom Park.

“The continuance of arrests and prosecutions on the strikers will negatively affect the government in response to international mechanisms, including the [International Labor Organization], the Human Rights Council, as well as the Monitoring Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review which are under the UN mechanism,” Tharo explained.

“This case has been being investigated by national and international institutions,” he said.

“Cambodia has yet to improve the recommendations and demands of the European Commission on human rights and labor rights in the country,” he added. “This case could be the agenda for granting and non-renewal of EU preferential treatment and the return of Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) from the US.”

In 2020, Cambodia partially lost access to the EU’s Everything But Arms preferential trading scheme on the grounds of systematic human and labor rights abuses going unchecked.

The ongoing NagaWorld strike has drawn the ire of a number of rights groups, both domestic and international, with global trade unions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and a number of advocacy groups all condemning the government’s heavy-handed approach to a labor dispute.

On Feb. 15, the Human Rights Watch called for the UN, the ILO and governments to denounce the arrests of union leaders, activists in Cambodia, saying that the authorities should immediately stop abusing public health measures to repress workers’ right to strike and other basic rights. 

“The Cambodian authorities are stooping to new lows by bringing criminal charges in the guise of public health measures to end a strike,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s persecution of union activists appears aimed at blunting the growing unity and strength of Cambodia’s union movement and their support for the NagaWorld strikers.”

The same day, rights group CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA—the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development—also issued a joint statement condemning the government’s handling of the NagaWorld strike and calling for a peaceful resolution.

“[We] are gravely concerned about the escalation of harassment against the NagaWorld union members and further arrests this week by the Phnom Penh police under the pretext of violating a pandemic law,” the joint statement read. “We urge the government to release the detained activists immediately and unconditionally, and to further respect the right to peaceful assembly of the workers in Cambodia.”


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