In a crackdown condemned as “overkill” by labour-rights groups, armed police and security guards broke up a peaceful protest of mostly young women at NagaWorld casino yesterday, briefly detaining 19 workers and their union leaders.
Eleven of those detained were female, while another woman was taken to hospital after fainting and scores more were left in tears outside the casino, visibly shaken by their ordeal.
Hundreds of casino workers, striking for a sixth day over wage demands, had assembled under tarpaulins on parkland in front of their workplace in the morning.
Right up until combined forces formed a ring around them at about 3pm, a festival atmosphere prevailed as strikers clapped and sang to the beat of drums.
That changed when the casino’s security guards, backed by military and riot police, pushed through the crowd to dismantle the tarps that had sheltered workers from the rain – and then set about driving them from the park altogether.
The security guards, clad in blue, detained workers who resisted – at one point forcibly carrying away a young woman – and also targeted union leaders who were addressing their members.
“They’re arresting me,” said Chhim Sithar, vice president of an independent in-house union, as security guards forced her to a nearby police truck. “They say this is an illegal strike, but we’ve followed the law.”
Doeur Daro, assistant president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation (CTSWF), which the casino union is affiliated with, also defended the legality of the strike – before he, too, was led away.
“We have already informed the company and they have continued to ignore our demands. Police should not disperse our protesters because we have done this peacefully,” he said.
It remains unclear why security guards rather than police were doing the detaining – or why the strike warranted such a forceful response – but a government official who spoke at the scene told workers they were “protesting illegally”.
“You did not provide information to authorities,” the official, whose name the Post could not confirm, said. “If you informed us, we would have found an appropriate place for this demonstration.”
The official added that this week was not a good time for workers to be protesting, due to the number of foreign delegates in Phnom Penh for UNESCO meetings.
“I understand your difficulty, but you should think of the country’s reputation. I beg you to go home for a few days.”
Up to 1,000 workers protested outside NagaWorld in February, demanding the reinstatement of fired unionists, a minimum wage increase to $150 per month and other demands that went back years.
The wage issue was one of two points workers say NagaWorld management had promised to deal with after three months.
Sokh Mulika, a casino operations dealer, said that time had arrived.
“The company always tries to delay this issue,” she said. “That’s why we’re protesting. We’re not demonstrating violently. The police should not arrest people and make the situation bad like this.”
Sithar, the detained union vice president who had earlier said through a microphone that the workers’ financial demands were small compared to NagaWorld’s annual profit, said by phone that the 19 workers were released last night.
“We told them we had warned them about the strike a week before. They released us without charge after they received information from high-ranking officials,” she said.
Dave Welsh, country manager for rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS, said action taken by police and security guards was “overkill”.
“It’s certainly intimidation,” he said. “And it’s complete military overkill. Two hundred military policeman with batons and shields against 100 trade unionists – virtually all young woman – protesting peacefully. It’s not a great optic four weeks from an election. And it doesn’t bode well for the future of industrial relations here at NagaWorld.”
Um Botom, another casino worker, said management had not negotiated with the workers during six days of strikes and were now “using the authorities to threaten us”.
NagaWorld management did not return calls.
Municipal police chief Choun Sovann did not respond to questions about why security guards had detained workers, but said the protesters had gone on strike without permission.
Chheng Sophors, senior monitor for rights group Licadho, said NagaWorld security guards had no right to detain or arrest strikers on public land.
“They can do this only on their private property,” he said. “I think the security guards have done this to scare strikers into stopping.”
But it may have backfired, according to Khleang Soben, one of the 11 women detained.
“The strike will continue. It’s not over,” she said.
Additional reporting by Sen David