Cambodia Casino Workers Win Big Wage Gains

Cambodia Casino Workers Win Big Wage Gains

Thousands of casino workers at NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, won a wage increase that boosts pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of union president Sithar Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages. The agreement also provides a $200 incentive for workers without health insurance and a bonus equal to roughly two months’ salary, says Chhim.

Cambodia, NagaWorld, casino strike, wages, Solidarity Center

Credit: Solidarity Center

Some 5,000 of the 8,000 workers—including dealers, slot machine workers, housekeepers and technicians—struck the casino January 9, and more than 4,000 rallied outside the complex for two days with signs saying “Demanding living wages is a right, not a crime!” and holding placards with photos of Chhim seeking her reinstatement. Chhim, a game floor supervisor, is branch president for the Khmer Employees’ Labor Rights Support Union of NagaWorld.

NagaCorp, a five-hotel resort and casino, has an exclusive, multidecade license to operate in Phnom Penh and reported an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue last year, up from $1.5 billion in 2018. Yet housekeepers are paid $191 per month.

Cambodia, NagaWorld casino strike, police, Solidarity Center

Police at NagaWorld hotel and casino as workers rallied outside. Credit: Solidarity Center

In May, nearly all 4,000 union members signed a petition demanding a wage increase, and the union began negotiations with the employer in June. When the company did not return to the bargaining table after three months as it indicated it would, more than 1,500 union members met September 19 and agreed to wear T-shirts with a message highlighting the company’s profits and expressing workers’ need for a wage that pays their rent, food, transportation and other basic monthly expenses.

The next day, Chhim was detained for hours at the facility and suspended. Union members immediately walked out in support of her. Sithar told Equal Times she then urged her colleagues to continue to work as usual, while organizing subtle protest actions, which included union members wearing pink face masks, black armbands and other markers of solidarity as they enter and exit the tightly guarded checkpoints of the complex.

After the union provided legal notice of the strike, the company continued hiring new workers, providing them accommodation and food in the company’s building and prohibiting them from leaving the facilities or contacting their families, according to the union.

Challenging Environment for Workers

The casino workers’ victory is all the more notable because of the many recent challenges to worker wrights in Cambodia.

Union leaders say amendments to 10 articles in Cambodia’s Law on Trade Unions restrict fundamental union activities. For instance, one amendment deprives unions of their right to hold legal strikes. “[Holding] a legal strike is always difficult, and I think the barriers in the Trade Union Law have actually made it more difficult,” says William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia country director.

Cambodia’s labor rights are currently under intense scrutiny, as the European Union decides whether to rescind the nation’s  preferential trade status that grants Cambodian exports duty-free access into EU markets.

Cambodia Casino Workers Win Big Wage Gains

Cambodia Casino Workers Win Big Wage Gains

Thousands of casino workers at NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, won a wage increase that boosts pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of union president Sithar Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages. The agreement also provides a $200 incentive for workers without health insurance and a bonus equal to roughly two months’ salary, says Chhim.

Cambodia, NagaWorld, casino strike, wages, Solidarity Center
Credit: Solidarity Center

Some 5,000 of the 8,000 workers—including dealers, slot machine workers, housekeepers and technicians—struck the casino January 9, and more than 4,000 rallied outside the complex for two days with signs saying “Demanding living wages is a right, not a crime!” and holding placards with photos of Chhim seeking her reinstatement. Chhim, a game floor supervisor, is branch president for the Khmer Employees’ Labor Rights Support Union of NagaWorld.

NagaCorp, a five-hotel resort and casino, has an exclusive, multidecade license to operate in Phnom Penh and reported an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue last year, up from $1.5 billion in 2018. Yet housekeepers are paid $191 per month.

Cambodia, NagaWorld casino strike, police, Solidarity Center
Police at NagaWorld hotel and casino as workers rallied outside. Credit: Solidarity Center

In May, nearly all 4,000 union members signed a petition demanding a wage increase, and the union began negotiations with the employer in June. When the company did not return to the bargaining table after three months as it indicated it would, more than 1,500 union members met September 19 and agreed to wear T-shirts with a message highlighting the company’s profits and expressing workers’ need for a wage that pays their rent, food, transportation and other basic monthly expenses.

The next day, Chhim was detained for hours at the facility and suspended. Union members immediately walked out in support of her. Sithar told Equal Times she then urged her colleagues to continue to work as usual, while organizing subtle protest actions, which included union members wearing pink face masks, black armbands and other markers of solidarity as they enter and exit the tightly guarded checkpoints of the complex.

After the union provided legal notice of the strike, the company continued hiring new workers, providing them accommodation and food in the company’s building and prohibiting them from leaving the facilities or contacting their families, according to the union.

Challenging Environment for Workers

The casino workers’ victory is all the more notable because of the many recent challenges to worker wrights in Cambodia.

Union leaders say amendments to 10 articles in Cambodia’s Law on Trade Unions restrict fundamental union activities. For instance, one amendment deprives unions of their right to hold legal strikes. “[Holding] a legal strike is always difficult, and I think the barriers in the Trade Union Law have actually made it more difficult,” says William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia country director.

Cambodia’s labor rights are currently under intense scrutiny, as the European Union decides whether to rescind the nation’s  preferential trade status that grants Cambodian exports duty-free access into EU markets.

Siem Reap Trash Collectors Win Pay Boost, Union Rights

Siem Reap Trash Collectors Win Pay Boost, Union Rights

At Cambodia’s iconic Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, trash collectors employed by the contractor V-Green are back on the job with a boost in pay this week after 200 workers waged weeks-long lunchtime protests for better wages, safer working conditions and improved social protections like health care.

The company agreed to increase monthly wages by $15 in 2019 and $20 in 2020, which means “workers with the lowest wage could earn up to $120 [per month] next year,” local union president Tea Tuot told the Phnom Penh Post. The workers, most of whom are women, also will get a $25 per month pay boost if the agency governing the park renews the company’s contract in 2020, and additional increases in the following two years.

Tea, who says the company reassigned him to a worksite far from the union members, was returned to his previous position as part of the agreement.

After workers formed the Tourism Employees Union V-Green Co. (TEUVGC) in June 2018, they successfully pushed for a monthly wage increase from $71 to $80 and some social protections through the national social security system, including access to the national health care program and worker compensation benefits.

But further talks stalled late last year, and workers say the company began to retaliate against union activists, including Tea. The company has agreed to not impede union activity or retaliate against workers involved in the union.

Throughout the workers’ efforts to achieve justice on the job, the Solidarity Center provided the union, an affiliate of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Worker Federation (CTSWF), with legal and bargaining support.

Workers Don’t Share in Cambodia’s Booming Tourism Industry

Cambodia’s tourism sector earned $3.63 billion in revenue in 2017, an increase of 13.3 percent over the previous year. Yet workers collecting trash throughout the more than 400-acre site are not provided with protective gloves and face masks, exposing them to safety and health hazards like broken glass and hazardous chemicals. They also have little job security and were not paid overtime on Sundays and holidays as required by law.

In recent years, construction and restoration workers at the Siem Reap complexes also have sought to improve their poverty wages and highly dangerous working conditions, but like many workers in Cambodia, they face big hurdles when they seek to form unions and improve their working conditions, including retaliation, violence and even imprisonment, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Cambodian workers have waged few strikes in recent years since passage of a 2016 labor law that significantly limits workers’ freedom to form unions and exercise their rights to collective bargaining and free assembly, and workers celebrating their victory at V-Green hope their victory bolsters’ similar workers’ struggles around the country.

A Union Makes Big Difference for Cambodia Hotel Workers

A Union Makes Big Difference for Cambodia Hotel Workers

From the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat to the palaces and pagodas of Phnom Penh, Cambodia draws vast numbers of tourists from around the world—more than 5.6 million in 2017—who help make the country the sixth fastest-growing economy in the world, with travel and tourism contributing 14 percent of total GDP in 2017.

But even as tourist visits accelerate and the economy booms, the hotel receptionists, room cleaners and maintenance staff essential to this economic growth are struggling to get their fair share of economic prosperity.

At the five-star Sofitel in Phnom Penh, where a room can cost up to $800 a night, base wages are $70 a month plus a percentage of the guest service charge, for a monthly salary of roughly $200 a month. Yet a basic living wage in Cambodia for one person is between $156 a month and $259 a month, and most workers have families to support.

“I want the employer to give a better base wage for employees,” says Phat Saroun, president of a newly formed union at the hotel. “I want to increase the base wage to $85 a month,” he says, speaking through a translator. Phat’s union is part of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeetra Hotel Independent Solidarity Union (SPPHISU).

Phat and five other Cambodian hotel workers traveled to Washington, D.C., in recent days as part of a Solidarity Center delegation to meet and strategize with hotel union activists and other leaders in the U.S. union movement.

A Union Makes a Big Difference

Cambodia, Angkor Wat

Tourists to Angkor Wat can pay high prices for hotels, even as workers barely earn a living wage. Credit: Wikipedia

With no legal minimum wage in Cambodia’s service sector, the nearly 1.2 million jobs in travel and tourism offer low pay and precarious employment—unless workers succeed in forming a union.

“There are two Sofitels in Cambodia and at the one in Siem Reap, they have a collective bargaining agreement. At my hotel in Phnom Penh, working conditions are very different,” says Phat, who is working to achieve a single contract with both hotels.

In Siem Reap, where nearby Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s biggest tourist draw, Mao Vanda has been part of her 235-member hotel union since its formation 12 years ago. Now a union secretary and shop steward, Mao describes the many improvements workers have negotiated at the luxury Raffles Grand Hotel.

“Working conditions are better than before,” she says, speaking through a translator. “Monthly salaries now average between $160 and $170 in the off-peak season, and around $350 during the five busiest tourist months.

“For instance, before we had a collective bargaining agreement, women were paid only 50 percent of their base salary during the [legally mandated] 90-day maternity leave. After the collective bargaining agreement, women are paid their full salary and full guest service charge for 100 days after giving birth. If they require a surgeon, the employer gives them $500.”

Workers Fear Losing Their Jobs if They Form a Union

Yet despite the significant improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions for unionized hotel workers, challenges to forming unions means union only represent between 4,000 hotel workers and 5,000, says Nimol Vorng, Solidarity Center program officer in Cambodia.

Hotels frequently hire workers on five-to-six month contracts and as a result, “Workers are afraid to join a union because after the contract is finished, the employer won’t hire you any more,” he says.

Although workers in the travel and tourism sector account for 13.6 percent of total employment, “unions don’t have strong voice or the power to negotiate with employer,” he says.

Yet Phat, Mao and other workplace-level union leaders who met with U.S. union activists are striving to strengthen their unions at the workplace and throughout the country’s hotel industry, and they plan to take back to their unions the lessons and experiences they gleaned in the United States.

For Mao, that means planning big. “For every hotel, we want to have a standard [national] minimum wage,” she says.

Solidarity Center Exchange Programs are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

 

Solidarity Center Supporting Trafficked Cambodians

Solidarity Center Supporting Trafficked Cambodians

Rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand are challenging a ruling by a California federal district court that dismissed their case against the Thai and U.S. companies that benefited from their labor.

A coalition of human rights groups, led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of seven workers as their case goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The workers had brought their suit based in part under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.

The December ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California interpreted the TVPRA in a way that essentially ignored the “knowingly benefit” standard and instead required evidence that the U.S.-based companies actually participated in a venture to traffic the Cambodian workers into Thailand, according to Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.

The supporting brief argues, in part, that the companies knew or should have known of the widespread use of trafficked labor in the seafood sector in Thailand. Since 2008, numerous reports have exposed the trafficking of workers into Thailand to work in the shrimp industry. It would have been virtually impossible for enterprises involved in the shrimp industry not to have known of the extremely high risk of trafficking.

In 2016 alone, 16 million people were victims of forced labor by private enterprises, according to International Labor Organization estimates. This illegal activity generates $51 billion in profits.

Following the December court ruling (Keo Ratha, et al. v. Phatthana Seafoods Co. Ltd., et al.), Keo Ratha, one of the seven men filing the suit, told Voice of America Khmer that he deeply regretted the district court’s decision.

“I’m disappointed because we thought that the U.S. court would find justice for us,” he said. “But when the court dismissed our complaint I was speechless. This is their law.”

Joining the Solidarity Center in its brief are the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Earthrights International, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group,  the International Labor Rights Forum and the Worker Rights Consortium.

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