Unions Sue Cambodia Airports over Unfair Dismissals and Union-Busting

Cambodia’s aviation sector is the latest to become embroiled in labor rights controversies as unions filed a complaint with the Labor Ministry over targeted layoffs aimed to “silence unions”

PHNOM PENH--Leaders of unions at Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville International Airports on July 20 sued Cambodia Airports for obstructing and refusing to engage in a collective bargaining agreement with the unions to resolve the issue of layoffs.

However, Cambodia Airports says negotiations on the agreement and the organization of the company structure must be done in accordance with the law.

The union leaders filed a complaint with Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng against Alain Brun, the director-general of Cambodia Airports, and Philippe Araujo, secretary-general of Cambodia Airports for “Intentionally obstructing and [being] dishonest in a collective bargaining agreement, and arbitrarily cutting workers’ wages and dismissing 131 workers without respecting the Labor Law.”

The complaints were filed by So Sao Boeun, president of the Phnom Penh International Airport Independent Workers’ Union, Rang Ravan, president of Siem Reap Airport Cambodia Tourism Industries Worker Trade Union and Ton Sokang, president of Sihanoukville Airport Workers’ union.

They said Cambodia Airports was looking for ways to dissolve the union and prevent the negotiation of a new collective agreement.

Boeun of the Phnom Penh union said that the company had used many tricks and had shown no willingness to negotiate in the last three years.

“When we asked for the negotiation, the company had an excuse, saying they were waiting to have a joint negotiation with branches in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap,” Boeun said. “They keep persecuting the unions and, when negotiating, the company negotiated with no sincerity until there was a suspension on unilateral negotiations.”

He added that he felt the company was concerned only with profits and had no willingness to think of the needs of its employees or negotiate with them.

Khek Norinda, communication and PR director of Cambodia Airports, denied everything the unions had said, adding that the company works closely with the Ministry of Labor.

“This is not true,” Norinda wrote in an email in response to queries regarding the unions’ claims.

“We have raised some technical points with the Ministry of Labor and are waiting for their clarification,” said Norinda. “We look forward to resuming discussions on the collective bargaining agreement, which have also been delayed due to the sanitary situation.”

Heng Sour, Labor Ministry spokesperson, could not be contacted for comments.

Cambodia Airports Accused of Silencing and Tormenting Unions

Cambodia Airports announced in April 2020 that a unilateral decision had been made to cut employees’ pay and claimed there was no need for negotiation with unions, which the unions’ complaint said is a violation of the Labor Law.

Moreover, Rang Ravan of the Siem Reap union said that the company did not pay laid-off employees in accordance with the Labor Law or offer any alternative compensation to the severance and benefits owed.

“The company only offered us our base salary, not including the total compensation owed and they didn’t discuss it with us,” Ravan said. “They decided on their own and deposited the money into the employees’ bank accounts. We have not agreed and this dispute has been delayed since Feb. 22.”

Cambodia Airport’s PR director Norinda claimed that the money had already been paid to laid-off employees and that the company had abided by the Labor Law, adding that the Ministry of Labor supervised.

“With respect to the compensation, the company had fully complied with the Labor Law,” Norinda said. “The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training had strictly monitored the plan. The staff who were let go received the payment in their bank accounts.”

Sour, the Labor Ministry’s spokesperson, could not be reached to verify Norinda’s claims.

However, Chenda Sokhom, director of the Siem Reap Provincial Labor Department, said that Cambodia Airports had indeed paid compensation to former employees who were laid off, but when asked for details, Sokhom referred reporters to the Ministry of Labor.

Again, Sour could not be reached.

Union-busting on the Rise in Cambodia during the Pandemic

In early December 2020, Cambodia Airports dismissed 130 employees in Siem Reap—80 percent of them belonged to the Cambodian Transport Workers Federation (CTWF).

Union-busting remains a prevalent tactic in Cambodia as employers ranging from infamous gambling giant NagaCorp to garment factories and international hotels have previously been accused of targeting union members and leaders with layoffs. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend has seen a sharp uptick in Cambodia and beyond.

Rang Ravuth said this action was intended to silence the unions’ voices, adding that workers in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville were facing the same problem.

Norinda maintained that all layoffs had been legal and that the restructuring was due to COVID-19—a similar reason had been offered by other companies accused of union-busting throughout the pandemic.

“As a principled company, we do not target unionized employees,” Norinda said. “And we abide the law. The reality is that the restructuring plan concerned the airport services mostly hard hit by the collapse of activities, in particular the workers at the ground-handling service, a group that has members of the union.”

However, the union said the company used the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to lay off staff, who had helped the company make million dollars profits.

Boeun of the Phnom Penh union said, “The company never discussed any decision regarding wages and labor rights with the unions. Moreover, the ministry never inspected and investigated any matters raised. The ministry mostly considered our disputes as personal disputes. The ministry seemed to be inclined toward the company.”

According to the Boeun, the Phnom Penh International Airport is targeting 300 staff that were mostly union members among more than 1,000 employees.

The union leaders demanded that the company sign a collective bargaining agreement and accept three points, including setting daily shifts working to eight hours, implementing the multi-skilled work agreement and increasing salary according to annual commodity price inflation.

Moreover, the unions asked the company to re-employ the 131 former workers whom they claimed were illegally laid off in Siem Reap Province and pay lost wages from the day they were laid off until the day they return to work.

They also demanded that the company repay the payroll, salaries and other benefits owed, which the unions said the company has illegally deducted since April 2020.

Since March 2020, activities at Siem Reap Airport experienced a deficit of more than 90 percent, with only one or two flights a week. For the first six months of 2021, air traffic has plummeted by 99.9 percent by contrast to pre-pandemic times and currently traffic has been stranded with no passengers, according to Cambodia Airports’ PR director Norinda.

“It is long due for the union leaders to come to terms with all aspects of the crisis and its hardship on the whole airport community, and to demonstrate mutual understanding,” Norinda said, but did not detail what “mutual understanding” might look like in this situation.

Cambodia Airports has two shareholders, France’s VINCI Airports which owns 70 percent and Muhibbah Masteron Cambodia—a joint venture between Cambodia and Malaysia—which owns the remaining 30 percent.

Under a public-private partnership signed with the Royal Government of Cambodia in 1995, Cambodia Airports has been granted investment concessions to develop and manage the international airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville.

Additional reporting by Teng Yalirozy

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