Trade union leader gets two years in jail over casino protests

Chhim Sithar was convicted of "inciting social chaos" at NagaWorld, Phnom Penh’s large gambling complex. She led a strike to defend workers' rights and get the company to reinstate hundreds of fired employees. Eight other union officials were given a suspended prison sentence ranging from 12 to 18 months. Meanwhile, the government has intensified its crackdown on dissent ahead of the July election.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – A court in Phnom Penh yesterday handed down a two-year prison sentence against union leader Chhim Sithar for “inciting social chaos”.  

A leading advocate for workers' rights, Sithar has played a prominent role in the dispute involving the NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex in the Cambodian capital.

The union leader led a strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Her fight has taken on wider significance as a symbol of the struggle for labour rights both in her home country and across the continent where such rights are far too often disregarded or outright denied.

Chhim Sithar was arrested in December 2021 amid street protests by workers, demanding not only higher wages but also the reinstatement of eight jailed union members and nearly 370 employees whom they say were unjustly fired.

Initially released on bail, Sithar was rearrested again in November 2022 after she returned to Cambodia from a labour conference in Australia, ostensibly for "violating bail rules" that required her not to leave the country.

The trade unionist's lawyer has contested the charge, saying that she had not been properly informed about travel restrictions.

According to international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sithar’s case is part of a broader government crackdown against trade unions and, more generally, against opposition groups and political dissent ahead of next July’s election.

The other eight trade union members on trial with Sithar were also found guilty, and received suspended sentences ranging from one year to a year and a half in prison.

All of the defendants have rejected the verdict. “I can’t accept it because I am innocent,” said Ry Sovanndy, one of the eight. “I can’t incite anything but I was convicted. I can’t accept it. I will appeal the decision because I can’t accept this injustice verdict.”

NagaWorld has been embroiled in the aforementioned labour dispute since April 2021 when it fired more than 1,300 employees, half of whom were officials or members of a labour union.

The company blamed its decision on the COVID-19 pandemic, the huge financial losses it incurred in the first six months of 2021 compared to the previous three years, and the cost of NagaWorld 3 expansion.

Workers dismissed the claim as a distortion of the facts, saying that the company simply took advantage of the situation for its own self-interest.

The conviction of Chhim Sithar and the others “is a blatant attack on unions and workers,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s Interim Deputy Regional Director for Research.

“This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people,” she added.

For casino worker Siek Panha, the court should be renamed “NagaWorld Court”. Protesting in front of the court, she told Radio Free Asia, that the court is in NagaWorld’s pockets.

What is more, she says she is “speechless” at the fact that Chhim Sithar’s crime was that “she defended union rights” and for this “was sentenced to two years in jail.”