Japan: Urge Cambodia to end repression of trade unions

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should pressure Cambodian authorities to stop using Japanese-funded public buses to forcibly remove strikers from picket lines in Phnom Penh, Human Rights Watch said today. today. The Cambodian government’s actions against the workers violated their fundamental rights to strike and freedom of association and expression.

Since NagaWorld Casino laid off 1,329 workers in April 2021, former employees have protested outside the central Phnom Penh casino and went on strike in December. Local authorities arrested dozens of striking union activists and forcibly removed them from the strike site in Japanese-funded public buses, transporting them to the outskirts of the capital or to Covid-19 quarantine sites.

“Japan should demand that the Cambodian authorities stop misusing the buses provided with Japanese taxpayers’ money, or risk being complicit in the Cambodian government’s abuses against the strikers,” said Teppei Kasai, head of the Asia program at Human Rights Watch. “The Japanese government should promote the rights of overseas workers, not allowing foreign aid to be used to undermine them.”

On September 27, 2016, the Japanese government signed a grant package of nearly 1.4 billion yen ($10 million) for make a donation 80 buses to Phnom Penh.

In a June 24, 2022 letter, Human Rights Watch asked Japan’s foreign aid agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to disclose whether the Japanese government had expressed concerns or taken action regarding the misuse of buses by the Cambodian government. The agency replied on July 28 that “the Japanese government and JICA have been in close contact with the Cambodian government on a daily basis, including on the human rights situation, and are working on this issue appropriately, but since this is a diplomatic matter, we would like to refrain from commenting on the details of the communication.

It is clear from video footage circulating on social media that officials are using the buses to help break the strike. A video shows at least five uniformed police officers, accompanied by three plainclothes men – one of whom is holding a walkie-talkie – pushing and dragging three striking women down the stairwell of a bus. Human Rights Watch has verified the authenticity of the video, identified the exact location, and matched the interior of the bus with Japanese-funded buses.

NagaWorld Casino’s mass dismissal in April 2021 included the president of the labor rights-backed NagaWorld Khmer Employees Union (LRSU), Chhim Sithar, and other union leaders and activists. Since then, the union has demanded the reinstatement of the dismissed workers, in particular the union leaders, and the payment of fair compensation for those dismissed in accordance with Cambodian labor laws.

In December, the Cambodian authorities immediately and baselessly called the union’s industrial action “illegal”, but the workers continued their strike. Authorities arrested 11 labor activists, including Chhim Sithar, on baseless charges of “incitement” as well as alleged violations of Cambodia’s “abusive law on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other deadly infectious diseases”, even if the strikers complied with the required Covid-19 measures.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Cambodia has ratified, provides for the right to strike. The International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association has declared that the right to strike is a right which workers and their organisations, including trade unions and federations, are “entitled to enjoy”, which any restriction on this right “should not be excessive” and that “the legitimate exercise of the right to strike should not entail prejudicial sanctions of any kind, which would involve acts of anti-union discrimination”.

In 1991, Japan issued its Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter, which includes human rights as one of its principles. The principle regarding how aid should be used in Japan’s ODA Charter states: “Particular consideration should be given to efforts to promote democratization and the introduction of a market economy, and to the situation regarding the protection of fundamental human rights and freedom in the recipient’s country.”

The Cambodian government’s use of vehicles to help forcefully dissolve peaceful union protests undermines workers’ rights to strike, freedom of expression, freedom of association and collective bargaining, a said Human Rights Watch.

“The Japanese government’s commitment to its development assistance charter will raise serious doubts unless immediate and effective action is taken to end Cambodia’s misuse of its buses,” Kasai said. “Tokyo should send a clear message to the Cambodian government that respect for human rights is at the heart of the bilateral relationship.”

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