Protests round off hard year for high-end hotel

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Protesters gather outside the Victoria Angkor Resort on Tuesday. Ouk Sokleng

Protests round off hard year for high-end hotel

Arbitration between the owners and management of Siem Reap’s Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa and representatives of 17 employees who were fired in September and October last year will continue Monday after negotiations failed this week amidst protests outside the hotel.

Sixty-five hotel staff and members of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers’ Federation (CTSWF) staged a protest on Tuesday afternoon, with about 50 turning out again yesterday afternoon. 

Morm Rithy, president of the CTSWF said that if the negotiations on Monday did not produce the desired outcome, more protests would take place.

“If the negotiations on Monday won’t bring what the workers want, the union will do a huge protest again on January 6, which will have 300 people,” he said. 

Nin Nit, one of the employees who was fired, said: “We want the owner to reinstate our jobs, for the general manager to be dismissed, and the hotel must stop discriminating against union members.” 

The employees, including the union leaders, were fired just after the union’s elections, he said.

The negotiations will be attended by HE Khim Bun Song, the governor of Siem Reap. 

The situation comes on the heels of a turbulent year for the hotel. A corporate shake-up saw it hived off from its sister hotels and managers in Vietnam and placed under new management. A new general manager, Ronan Bianchi, who has worked for the Victoria group of hotels since 2004, was installed in August. 

Pierre Nollet, director general of the hotel’s holding company, Electricité et Eaux de Madagascar (EEM), told Post Weekend that Bianchi conducted legal and financial audits at the hotel, which led to the decision to let the 17 members of staff go. 

Bianchi had already ruffled feathers following changes that he implemented to raise standards at the hotel, said Nollet. “Of course change is going to push some people out of their comfort zone.” 

The acrimony resulted in a bizarre incident in September last year when staff photographed an unconscious Bianchi after he returned about 3am from a night out. He had been out friends and staff when, he said, “I felt bad suddenly and decided to go back to the hotel.” By the time he got inside, he had passed out. He claims he may have been drugged and that the staff set up a "trap".

According to Nollet, staff members sent the photographs to the American Embassy and other clients of the hotel demanding that he be removed. 

The hotel has filed a criminal complaint against those they say were responsible. 

At arbitration last Wednesday, six of the employees accepted the hotel’s terms, said Nollet. “They are not being fired. We decided to pay them until the end of their contracts and we offered to pay them the money immediately,” he said. 

The other former employees have not agreed to those terms.

“We have no hope that we will get what we want,” said CTSWF president Morm. 

Nollet said that the hotel was standing firm. “I will not have someone in my house who is against me,” he said. “And I have the right to not renew their contracts.” 

He asserts that the union is not legal, and has therefore no right to represent the workers. He also contends that the arbitration has become a political matter. “My brother in France is a union leader,” he said. “I know what protecting workers’ rights looks like. This is not it.” 

Nin rejected this allegation, saying that the union’s papers were correctly filed.  

Industry insiders meanwhile watch the conflict with concern. “It’s very bad for the reputation of Siem Reap and for tourism in Cambodia in general,” said one on condition of anonymity.

Another, also anonymously, noted the potential repercussions.

“The Victoria offers the best salaries and service charge in town,” they said. “If they continue with this, it will destroy the image of Siem Reap.”

This article has been amended to include more details about the alleged blackmail attempt on Ronan Bianchi.

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