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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Playing with a bad hand

Motorists ride past the Diamond Slot Club and Tropicana Casino in the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey provincee
Motorists ride past the Diamond Slot Club and Tropicana Casino in the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey province last year. PHA LINA

Playing with a bad hand

It's been more than a year since union leader Sat Sep was fired from the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Poipet town, a dismissal that sparked strikes and ended in senior members of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation being driven from the casino’s gaming rooms.

“Since then, the company has terminated the contracts of about 300 workers. Some were given compensation – but not the full amount they were entitled to under the law,” Sep claimed yesterday.

Rulings from the Provincial Department of Labour and the Arbitration Council ordered the reinstatement of Sep – an employee of the casino for more than 10 years. To this day, he remains banned from the casino and says he is still owed a significant amount of money.

In recent weeks, hundreds of disgruntled workers have been protesting at the Kingdom’s most prominent casino, NagaWorld in Phnom Penh.

But far from the capital, workers and unions say Sep’s case is an example of the “illegal” and substandard treatment of employees that often passes unseen in Poipet.

“Working conditions here are poor,” said Malis – not her real name – an employee of the Holiday Palace Hotel and Casino.

After more than five years in the casino, Malis still works a rotating shift that makes it almost impossible to slip into a regular pattern of sleep, she said.

“I’m now working 7pm to 3am. Customers complain when you’re tired. And we get written warnings if customers complain. Then we get fired,” she said.

When Malis spoke to Post reporters, she was wandering in the dark streets outside the casino in search of food.

“The food in the casino isn’t good,” she said.

Other workers said their casinos took money from their salary for food – whether they ate it or not – and for transport in crammed trucks.

The bright lights of Poipet’s flourishing casinos lie between the passport checkpoints of Cambodia and Thailand.

Thais are not allowed to gamble at home and can cross into the casino zone without having to go through Cambodia’s passport control.

Cambodians can also enter the area but, by law, cannot gamble in the casinos.

But many still do.
“My casino allows Khmer customers in 24 hours a day,” said one worker, who feared dismissal if his name was printed. “It’s simple – when Cambodians are in the casino, the cameras are turned off.”

He said many Cambodians tried to speak Thai when they entered the casino but added this was a ruse easy to spot.

“Often, when they lose, they snap and curse in Khmer,” he said.

Workers said they objected to contributing to illegal activity, but felt powerless to do anything.

“Authorities seem to turn a blind eye to this problem. Maybe they need bribes from the casinos,” one Holiday Palace casino worker said.

The man – an experienced worker who was wearing a suit – said the Ministry of Interior had the duty to stop illegal activity.

A security guard from the Holiday Palace, who gave her name as Srey Leap, said Cambodians were not allowed to gamble at her casino.

“But sometimes we don’t always follow those rules,” she said.

A representative of Tropicana declined to comment, while Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Kheng Sum said he was not aware of any unlawful activity at casinos in Poipet.

“The central security police at the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh have the duty to investigate,” he said.

Sok Phal, Ministry of Interior central security department director, said he was busy, referring questions to the National Police, whose spokesman could not be reached.

Dave Welsh, country manager for Solidarity Center/ACILS, said authorities were not doing enough to ensure the casinos, many of which were foreign owned, followed Cambodian laws.

“None of the casinos [there] are poster children for adherence to the Labour Law and freedom of association,” he said.

Workers’ rights would remain in jeopardy if freedom of association remains off limits to workers in Poipet, Welsh said.

“No industry in the country should be without the presence of real trade unions. But foreign power is dictating terms in Poipet,” he said.

Sacked union leader Sep, who still represents more than 100 employees in Tropicana – albeit from a remote location – says conditions in the casino have improved somewhat since the strikes.

“The casino has changed its administration from Thai to Khmer. Now they respect Khmer annual holidays,” he said.

But seniority bonuses were still not being paid and workers were receiving salaries in Thai baht, which they then had to exchange into riel.

However, one Tropicana casino worker, who declined to be named, said conditions had improved markedly since the strikes.

“Working at this casino gives me the opportunity to learn and speak Thai,” he said. “Things are fine now.”

Workers still awaiting money owed to them – and those wanting to lobby for better conditions in the future – might disagree.

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