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Cambodia: Union leader jailed - shocking abuse of human rights

Six months ago, a woman trade union leader from Cambodia was on her way home from Melbourne, where she attended the world congress of the International Trade Union Confederation. Chhim Sithar, the leader of Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, was arrested at Phnom Penh airport. She stood accused of violating her bail conditions by travelling overseas. (She and her lawyers deny this.)

Guest blog by Eric Lee

Last week, she was sentenced to two years in jail while eight of her colleagues received lesser sentences. Sithar and her fellow union leaders were found guilty of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security” . She has been transferred to prison.

Sithar and her union have been embroiled in a bitter dispute with a casino company known as NagaWorld, going back several years. NagaWorld used the COVID crisis as an excuse to sack a large proportion its workforce. Among those sacked were pretty much all the union members, including the entire leadership. It was union-busting under the cover of a deadly pandemic.

The workers responded with non-violent protests, but they were attacked by police who, like the government itself are is acting in collusion with the employer.

A key element in the story is the role of international trade union solidarity. Sithar stands accused of travelling to Australia to meet not only with her colleagues in the global trade union movement, but also with local politicians in Canberra.

The International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) launched an online campaign on LabourStart at the beginning of 2022 demanding the release of the union leaders. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Director General at the time, Guy Ryder, expressed deep concern over the arrests and called for the immediate release of those detained. The campaign attracted significant support — over 15,000 supporters signed up in more than 20 languages. The IUF followed up with a formal complaint to the ILO, which in turn called upon the Cambodian government “to ensure that NagaCorp respect labour and trade union rights”.

The 2022 campaign was seen as a limited success. As the IUF explained at the time, campaign supporters were thanked “for this fantastic expression of international solidarity. Without doubt, every single protest message sent through the Urgent Action on LabourStart added to the tremendous pressure brought to bear on the Cambodian authorities, resulting in the release of the union leaders and activists from prison.”

But a note of caution was also sounded. “While the charges have not yet been dropped and the struggle for reinstatement continues, it is clear that the urgent action played an important role in winning their freedom.”

Unfortunately, that freedom did not last and things have gotten considerably worse. Major human rights organisation have now issued public condemnations of the Cambodian government — including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Australian Council of Trade Unions have launched an online protest campaign. The International Trade Union Confederation has issued a strong statement. And the IUF has created a new campaigning website.

It is not clear that any of this will be enough. As we have seen in country after country, from Belarus to Myanmar, authoritarian regimes have gone on the offensive in their war on workers’ rights. It is of course a good thing that large and powerful unions and other organisations issue strong statements. But Chhim Sithar will only be released from jail if it can be shown that tens of thousands of trade unionists and human rights activists around the world are aware of this terrible injustice — and are prepared to fight.

Chhim Sithar, leader of Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld

Originally published in


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