Suspended Handicraft Workers Seek Reparation After Unpaid Salaries

Pav Sina during a meeting with the union workers of Artisans Angkor. Photo supplied by Pav Sina.

PHNOM PENH – Workers at handicraft company Artisans Angkor demand compensation for unpaid salaries, three years after their job got suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final round of negotiation between the social enterprise, whose activity is tourism-dependent, and the workers is due to be held on March 24, as the company has found new momentum with tourists coming back to Cambodia.

Lim Vic, the president of the union at Artisans Angkor, said that company representatives requested two more months to settle the dispute, during their last meeting on March 16. But the workers disagreed and demanded an agreement to be found before April, she said.

“We want the company to provide a solution. If it shuts down, it should consider the seniority of the workers as soon as possible,” Vic said.

Based in Siem Reap province, Artisans Angkor is a handicraft social enterprise, aiming to create jobs for the locals. It teaches its trainees and employees silk weaving, wood and stone carving, ceramics, jewelry, silk painting, gilding, lacquer, or silver-plating meticulous techniques.

Artisan Angkor suspended about 1,000 workers on May 30, 2020, after it saw its activity plummet due to the lack of tourists, in the midst of the pandemic. While workers’ contracts were suspended, and not terminated, most of them are still unemployed today.

Vic said workers benefited for some time from the government COVID-19 assistance scheme, which provided every worker impacted by the pandemic with a $70 monthly allocation. The company was paying $30 to suspended workers, while the additional $40 was coming from government funding, as provided by the financial initiative measure.

But the government assistance ended in June 2022, leaving the workers with no income since then.

Vath Samrech, a silk weaving staff since 2000, said the company shows no intention to take back the suspended workers and is looking for new staff.

She said that she wants the company to terminate her contract and provide the workers with employment benefits in accordance with labor law.

“We want seniority pay or annual pay under the labor law. We don’t want anything but our employee benefits,” said Samrech, referring to severance pay, seniority pay, compensation for the prolonged period of suspension, and the payment for annual leave.

Phoeung Leakena, a human resource manager at the Artisans Angkor, said the board of directors and the management team are discussing the resolution and will convene a holistic meeting with the union and workers on March 24.

She said the issue is more than 90 percent resolved already, with the management team trying to discuss compensation while keeping the company afloat.

“I don’t know anything more about it, but I know they are trying to find a solution,” she said. “I also want the problem to be settled as we have been through a difficult time without work.”

Leakena also had her work suspended for two years and resumed her duty in late 2022 after the company opened the door to welcome back tourists following the ease of travel restrictions.

She explained that the company was hit hard by the outbreak, forcing it to suspend the jobs of its workers. The business’s profits dried out as no tourists came to buy the products the company produced.

Asked why the company would not let the suspended workers resume their jobs, Leakena said it has been through some restructuring with the presence of the new shareholders.

She said the company might face bankruptcy if it did not seek new investment.

Nevertheless, worker Vath Samrech said the company keeps delaying finding a solution. She said some staff became construction workers while some stay at home with no job opportunities.

“Most of us are in debt, which makes it so difficult for us to live,” she said. But she recently found a job in another artisan company.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the attempt of the company to continue to suspend the worker with no monthly wage makes their lives difficult.

“If the company continues to suspend their work, it must settle a monthly allowance,” he said. “But if it does not let the workers continue their work, it must pay them their seniority payment.”

Sina also requested the government to subsidy the suspended workers in the tourism sector too, as a new cash assistance scheme was recently introduced for workers in the garment sector, which faces a decline in orders.

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