Cambodia: Covid-19 used to justify crackdown on union

(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should immediately stop misusing public health measures to suppress workers’ right to strike and other basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the labor rights-backed NagaWorld Khmer Employees Union (LRSU) went on strike in December 2021 to demand the reinstatement of workers fired earlier in the year, Cambodian authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained and prosecuted union activists. More recently, authorities have sought to justify these criminal charges as measures related to Covid-19. On February 5, 2022, police arrested six syndicate members at NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh as they left a Covid-19 testing site and groundlessly accused three of them of obstructing government efforts against Covid -19.

“Cambodian authorities are stooping to new levels by filing criminal charges under the guise of public health measures to end a strike,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s persecution of labor activists appears to be aimed at blunting the growing unity and strength of the Cambodian labor movement and its support for the NagaWorld strikers.

On February 4, the Cambodian Ministry of Health ordered several hundred workers engaged in a strike outside the NagaWorld casino to take a Covid-19 test, after a member of the striking union (which had last participated in the strike on January 15) tested positive. Authorities said anyone who tested negative would have to self-isolate for seven days and if they tested positive they would be sent to a Covid-19 treatment centre. Between February 5 and 6, more than 400 protesting workers showed up, as ordered, at the designated testing site on Diamond Island in Phnom Penh (Koh Pich). Since the strike began, protesters have been protecting themselves and others by wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

The six people arrested on February 5 were Seng Vannarith, Choub Channath, Sao Sambath, Ouk Sophorn, Touch Danet and Em Kunthea. Police released Sophorn, Danet and Kunthea later that night, but detained Vannarith, Channath and Sambath at Phnom Penh police headquarters. On February 9, the Phnom Penh court charged the latter three with “obstruction of Covid-19 measures” (article 11 of the Cambodian Covid-19 law), punishable by up to five years in prison. . The court ordered their pre-trial detention at the Judicial Police Prison in Phnom Penh, which in November 2020 was at around 170% capacity.

On February 5, authorities summoned four other workers for questioning over alleged obstruction of Covid-19 measures. The four had followed government orders in getting tested for Covid-19 and self-isolating after testing negative. One of the four told VOD News she was “shocked” to receive a summons because she said she “didn’t incite people to block the tests”. Another feared she would be found in breach of Covid-19 measures if she came out of solitary confinement to appear in court.

“Throwing workers into overcrowded prisons that are hotbeds for Covid-19 as they await a criminal trial shows that the government’s concern is not public health but the end of one of the longest industrial actions in the world. Cambodia for years,” Robertson said.

On December 18, LRSU went on strike in accordance with international labor law, calling for the reinstatement of 365 previously dismissed employees in connection with the mass dismissal of 1,329 workers by Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino in April 2021. Among those laid off were trade union leaders. Authorities called the strike “illegal” based on a December 16 court ruling that violated the right to strike protected under international law. Authorities ordered protesters back to work, saying that if they failed to do so, NagaWorld would be allowed to fire them. The government failed to find a fair solution to the labor disputes between NagaWorld and the union.

Since December 31, authorities have arrested dozens of LRSU members who took part in the strike, and have already imprisoned eight, including union president Chhim Sithar, for “incitement”. They are being held in Correctional Centers 1 and 2 in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government passed the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Serious, Dangerous, and Contagious Diseases in March 2020. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly highlighted the threat the law poses to human rights in Cambodia, as the authorities can easily abuse them. its overly broad and vague provisions. The law also lacks independent oversight and procedural safeguards, and provides for disproportionate fines and penalties of up to 20 years in prison for alleged breaches of Covid-19 related measures.

The UN special rapporteur on Cambodia reported that between March and October 2021, police arrested more than 700 people based on allegations of violating Covid-19 measures. Some of the alleged breaches of the Covid-19 law involved people making critical comments on social media about the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Cambodia is bound by the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87 and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to strike. The ILO’s Tripartite Committee on Freedom of Association has ruled that strike bans during a national emergency, such as the Covid-19 public health crisis, should be time-limited, strictly necessary and proportionate. The committee also said that “the responsibility for suspending a strike for public health reasons should not lie with the government, but with an independent body which has the confidence of all parties concerned”.

Precautionary health measures taken by LRSU protesters rendered the strike refusal and subsequent arrests unnecessary, excessive, and disproportionate, violating their internationally protected right to strike, Human Rights Watch said.

“Using public health measures to suppress workers undermines public confidence in government actions against Covid-19,” Robertson said. “UN agencies in Cambodia, the ILO and foreign embassies should pressure the government to immediately and unconditionally release detained union activists and stop abusing health measures for political purposes. .

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