Cambodia Weaponizes COVID-19 in its Struggle Against Striking Workers

For months, Cambodia’s PM has attempted to quash protests against the NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh. But his tactics are failing due to workers’ opposition and international pressure.

It’s noon and Phnom Penh looks like an escape room. At the central intersection between Suramarit and Sothearos boulevards, a swarm of police cars and uniformed and plainclothes officers protect NagaWorld, the capital’s only licensed casino-hotel complex. Suddenly, a walkie-talkie command arrives and the game of cat and mouse begins. The police hunt down a dozen strikers and lock them inside a public bus, which serves as a mobile cell. They go on to detain around 200 more strikers.

It is March 13, and nearly four months have passed since the Labor Rights Supported by Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), the complex’s union, decided to launch a strike against the casino. The December 18 decision was made following the dismissal of 1,329 workers in early 2021, which was justified by a significant drop in the income of the casino’s owner, NagaCorp, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, Cambodian authorities have tried to stop the strikes with a range of repressive tactics. Initially, they arrested eight union leaders, since released, after calling for the strike to end. More recently, they have played the “COVID-19 card.” A recently passed law that empowers the government to impose restrictions to curb the spread of infectious diseases has given Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen the perfect pretext to get rid of the hundreds of protesters who have tried, day after day, to reach the vicinity of the NagaWorld complex.

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